|Highlands Girls Upset by NewCath|
|PHOTO: G. Michael Graham, Fort Thomas Matters. Highlands Head Coach Kevin Listerman (middle) gives instructions during the game at Newport Central Catholic on Tuesday. Highlands won 84-80 in overtime.|
But the Highlands Bluebirds basketball team (19-1 overall), ranked ninth in the latest Associated Press poll, knew the host Newport Central Catholic Thoroughbreds (11-8) would throw everything they had at them. Highlands had to go to overtime, but survived the battle with an 84-80 victory wrapping up that elusive top seed for the first time in the seven years Kevin Listerman has been the head coach.
"I'm so proud of our guys," Listerman said. "Just the resolve that they had. Usually in overtime, you get up three points, you're kids tend to look and panic and we didn't. We responded. There were so many emotional swings in that game. Newport (Central) Catholic has played an awful lot of tough games. They're going to get healthy and they're going to be a very good team come tournament time."
Highlands has won three in a row over the Thoroughbreds. The last time the Bluebirds won on the hill during the regular season came by a 58-44 score on Jan. 9, 2010.
The two leading scorers for the Bluebirds rose up to the challenge to lead the way. Juniors Sam Vinson and Luke Muller came into the game averaging 24.1 and 16.4 points per game respectively. Vinson scored 34 points and grabbed 11 rebounds for a double-double to go with seven assists, three blocked shots and a steal. Vinson made 3-of-4 three-point shots and 17-of-24 free throws.
Muller made 8-of-13 shots including 5-of-8 three-point tries on his way to 21 points before fouling out with just under three seconds left in regulation. Muller also had four rebounds and two assists.
"(Junior forward Bryson Cody and I) were in the gym late (Monday) night getting some shots up," Muller said. "I came out with a hot start and I stayed engaged the whole game trying to play good defense. I too many fouls called on me. You just have to deal with that. My team had my back in the end."
Highlands made 26-of-57 shots for 46 percent including 8-of-20 from three-point range for 40 percent and 21-of-33 free throws for 64 percent. The Bluebirds also had 40 rebounds, 24 fouls, 17 assists, 10 turnovers, six blocked shots and five steals.
The duo had plenty of help. Sophomores Oliver Harris and Zach Barth came off the bench to score seven each. Barth also had three assists. Senior forward Jack Delagrange tracked down some key rebounds in overtime and junior guard Evan Rom had five points and five rebounds helping with some key defensive stops.
NewCath displayed its usual balance. Senior forward Evan Mullikin and Eli Howard led the way with 18 and 16 points respectively. Senior guard Cody Mueller scored 14 and senior guard Kyle Hunter scored 13 points and had 10 rebounds for a double-double.
"When you play in a rivalry game like this, you don't really worry about the numbers because you know the capabilities of the other team," Listerman said. "You prepare for their capabilities and I thought we did a good job at times. We just didn't close out this game in regulation like I would have liked us to. We missed a couple free throws, had a couple bad turnovers. But NewCath can say the same thing. NewCath missed a couple free throws that would have made a difference. In the end, we basically made one more play than they did."
The Thoroughbreds made 29-of-64 shots for 45 percent including 5-of-19 from three-point range for 26 percent and 14-of-30 free throws for 47 percent. NewCath also had 42 rebounds, 23 fouls, 12 assists, six turnovers, one blocked shot and two steals.
NewCath scored the game's first seven points. But Highlands fought back and trimmed the margin to one in the final minute of the first quarter. The Thoroughbreds led 17-14 after the first quarter.
The Thoroughbreds increased the lead to as much as eight before the Bluebirds fought back. Barth recorded a steal and passed the ball ahead to Vinson who drew the foul and made both free throws to tie the game at 28 with 3:02 left at in the second quarter.
After Howard hit two free throws, Rom hit a jumper on the right side and Barth had a steal, score and made the ensuing free throws to give Highlands a 33-30 lead. The Bluebirds incresed the lead to 42-36 at halftime when Vinson hit a free throw.
"We had to keep our composure," Vinson said. "Every time we come up here, it's probably going to be a good game against a good team. The atmosphere here was just crazy. We all just had to do our role and come out with the win."
Highlands tried to pull away in the third quarter. Muller opened it with a triple giving the Bluebirds a 45-36 lead just 15 seconds into the second half. Highlands led 55-51 entering the final quarter after a Vinson free throw.
Up 60-55 in the fourth quarter, Highlands used a 5-0 run to go up 65-55 for its largest lead of the game with 4:57 left in the game. Muller made a triple and Vinson scored fast-break lay-up.
But the Bluebirds could not put the Thoroughbreds away. NewCath trimmed the margin to 66-65 with 1:13 left in the game when senior guard Caleb Jefferson made 1-of-2 free throws. With a minute left, Vinson made two free throws to increase the margin to 68-65.
After the teams exchanged turnovers, Hunter had an offensive putback to trim the margin to 68-67 with 22.9 seconds left. After Vinson missed two free throws a few seconds later, Mullikin drew a foul on a loose ball and made 1-of-2 free throws to tie the game at 68. The game then went to overtime.
Vinson started the overtime session with a three-point play. But the Thoroughbreds tied the game after Hunter hit a free throw and Mueller put in an offensive rebound.
Following a three from the right wing by NewCath sophomore guard Ross Pangallo, Vinson made two free throws and Delagrange made another to tie the game at 74.
After NewCath missed two free throws at the other end, Delagrange grabbed the rebound. At the other end, senior Hunter Ahlfeld took the ball on the right baseline and found Harris for the score with 45 seconds left in the game.
"At the end of the game, we knew it was going to come down to grit - how hard we wanted it," Delagrange said. "Rebounds were going to be a big deal so we were really just trying to get after it in the paint and made sure we extended possessions getting some extra shots. That's what led to our 7-0 pulling away at the end."
Mueller gave the Thoroughbreds the lead back with 30.8 seconds left at 77-76. He hit a triple from the left wing.
But Vinson responded making a three from the right wing to put Highlands ahead for good at 79-77 with 20.2 seconds left in overtime. Vinson then made two free throws with 3.8 seconds left to make the final score.
"When they hit that three and took the lead, the place went nuts for them," Vinson said. "Then I came down and saw an opening for a three so I took it and it went in. My teammates believed in me and my coaches believed in me so I knew I could make the shot when I took it."
The Bluebirds have three days off before heading to Park Hills on Saturday for a battle with sixth-ranked Covington Catholic (18-4). Game time is 4 p.m.
Newport Central Catholic 50, Highlands 47:
Highlands (12-7 overall) led 44-33 entering the final quarter.
But the Thoroughbreds (14-8) outscored the Bluebirds, 17-3 in the fourth quarter to pull off the stunning win. Highlands made just 1-of-11 two-point shots in the second half.
Just like that, the eight-game winning streak and streak of 32 straight wins against 36th District opponents ended. NewCath was the last 36th District team to beat Highlands, 55-45 on the hill in the district championship game on Feb. 27, 2014. The Bluebirds had won nine straight against the Thoroughbreds.
NewCath took the lead with 2:33 left in the game for good at 46-44. Down 48-44, senior guard Maggie Hinegardner made a three to trim the margin to 48-47 with 50.1 seconds left.
Highlands had several chances at that point to take the lead but missed shots near the basket. Sophomore guard Ella Meyer made one free throw with 3.3 seconds left in the game to make the final score for NewCath.
"We had some great looks there at the end of the game in the paint," said Jaime Walz-Richey, Highlands Head Coach. "We just missed them, but ultimately, it shouldn't have come down to those. We made some mistakes defensively when we went to a zone. We let a girl be able to get in the lane. That's what we don't want in a zone. It's a learning game. That's why we play these games now."
Senior guard Piper Macke led Highlands with 16 points to go with two assists and six rebounds. Junior forward Rory O'Hara added 10 and Hinegardner had nine.
The Bluebirds scored the game's first seven points. They led 19-10 after the first quarter and 30-20 at halftime. Macke hit a triple to give Highlands its largest lead of 39-23 with 4:43 left in the third quarter.
"It's a game of runs when you play a rivalry game like this and we knew they weren't going to lay down," Richey said. "It's a 32-minute game. We can't rely on just the first three minutes of the game. We didn't follow details of the scouting report that we have to learn from. Ultimately, we said it's better to lose this game than the district finals. We hate losing without a doubt. We'll go to practice, watch film, look at our mistakes and learn from them."
Highlands made 19-of-54 shots including 9-of-25 from three-point range for 36 percent and none of the three free throws. The Bluebirds also had 13 assists, 12 steals, 16 turnovers and 23 rebounds.
Highlands travels to Bishop Brossart (18-3) on Thursday. Game time is 7:30 p.m.