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Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Highlands Battles Covington Catholic to End in Region Title Game

Second Quarter Dooms Bluebirds in Loss

Highlands junior point guard Sam Vinson made all 12 free throws on his way to 24 points to go with six rebounds, three assists, two blocked shots and two steals in the 9th Region championship game Tuesday. Highlands came up short against Covington Catholic, 59-54.

The only thing the Blue and White could ask for was a chance to slay the dragon.

Appearing in the 9th Region championship game for the first time since 2001, the Highlands Bluebirds boys basketball team put together an amazing season. But to keep it going, the Bluebirds had to blow through a huge obstacle in the Covington Catholic Colonels.

CovCath made its eighth straight appearance in the region championship at BB&T Arena on the campus of Northern Kentucky University. The Colonels had won the region championship four times including the last two seasons on their way to state championships in 2014 and 2018.

The closest any region team came to beating the Colonels in both the regular season and post-season entering Tuesday was host Beechwood in the 35th District championship game on Feb. 28. CovCath won the district championship with a 63-52 win. Highlands came within two points twice in the final minutes, but could not pull off the victory falling 59-54.

"I told them in the locker room how proud I am of them," said Kevin Listerman, Highlands Head Coach. "Winning a game doesn't make you a champion. Champions are built by how they handle themselves every day and this group is a championship group. We came up a little bit short, but the grit that our seniors showed and just the toughness of our guys to continue to fight and stick it out. We needed to hit one more shot. I thought coming in we would have to hit probably 10 or 11 three's and we hit eight. We got some of the looks we wanted. We just didn't bury them."

Highlands (28-4) knew shots in the middle would be more difficult because CovCath (29-5 overall) has size and length that most opponents do not. The Bluebirds wound up making 16-of-41 shots for 39 percent including the 8-for-20 from three-point range that Listerman referred to and 14-of-16 free throws for 88 percent.

After being held to just seven points in the 65-39 defeat at CovCath on Feb. 1, Highlands junior point guard Sam Vinson tore his way to 24 points making all 12 free throws. Vinson also had six rebounds, three assists, two blocked shots and two steals.

CovCath trapped Vinson hard during the regular season forcing the ball out of his hands. Other players stepped forward to make sure that did not happen as much. Senior guard Hunter Ahlfeld made 5-of-10 three-point tries on his way to 18 points. Junior forward Luke Muller made two treys on his way to seven points and sophomore guard Zach Barth made the other three-pointer.

"We talked about it in film and a little bit in our shoot-around about where we would get our looks," Listerman said. "We knew that they would trap Sam. We had guys that did the right thing. Jack Delagrange did a great job finding guys once we got it inside and kicking it out. That opened things up for Sam to be able to get to the rim and Sam did his typical thing. The end is never quite the way you want it."

Highlands did lose the rebounding battle, 29-22. Senior forward Jack Delagrange tied Vinson with six rebounds and junior forward Bryson Cody had four.

Senior center Neil Green had 17 points in the regular season meeting against Highlands for CovCath. He hurt the Bluebirds again with a double-double of 15 points and 13 rebounds. Senior center Noah Hupmann and senior forward Joseph Moser had 12 points each.

CovCath made 19-of-40 shots for 48 percent including 3-of-9 from three-point range for 33 percent and 18-of-25 free throws for 72 percent. The Colonels also had 11 turnovers, seven assists, 16 fouls and one steal to seven turnovers, two blocked shots and four steals for the Bluebirds.

Highlands battled CovCath in the first quarter. The Bluebirds led just once the entire game when Muller made a three-pointer with 6:10 left in the quarter at 3-2. But they did tie it at eight when Delagrange scored on a jumper with 2:11 left in the quarter. Following a 5-0 Colonel run, Ahlfeld made a three from the right wing with 10 seconds left to cut the CovCath margin to 13-11 entering the second quarter.

In the second quarter, Ahlfeld scored with 6:55 left in the second quarter to trim the margin to 16-15. Following a Moser three, Vinson laid one in to cut the margin to 19-17 with 6:18 left in the quarter. But the Bluebirds did not score the rest of the half and trailed 28-17 at halftime.

CovCath seemed to put the game away with a 6-0 run late in the third quarter. But Ahlfeld finished the quarter with consecutive threes to trim the margin to 42-33 with entering the fourth quarter.

Highlands kept chipping away. Barth made his triple with 3:43 left in the game to make it 48-42 Colonels. Vinson made two free throws with 2:04 left in the game before CovCath committed a double dribble.

On the other end, Ahlfeld made a three-pointer from the right corner to make the score 54-52 Colonel. Vinson made two free throws following two Colonel makes to trim the margin to 56-54 with 26 seconds left. But CovCath made 3-of-4 free throws to finish the game.

"There are 100 plays in a game that would make a difference," Listerman said. "If we come up with a rebound early, it would prevent a stickback. Maybe get an and-one vs. a couple free throws. We needed to make one more, maybe two more. The best part is our guys never quit. They kept believing we would make the run and we did. We gave ourselves an opportunity and that's all you can ask for."

Ahfeld, Muller and injured senior guard Jacob Brass are the three seniors on the team that won 28 games for the first time since the 1997-98 season. Highlands also won its first 36th District championship since 2008. The Bluebirds will again build around Vinson, Muller and the likes of Cody, sophomore post Oliver Harris and Barth.

"This is the toughest group of guys I've ever been around and ever played with," Brass said. "The camaraderie between all our teammates and the bonds we've made are unbreakable forever. I love these guys and can't wait to see what they can do next year."

Highlands also beat Dixie Heights and Conner for its first two region tournament wins since 2009. The Bluebirds had dropped five region semifinal games between 2002 and 2009.

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