But the players and coaches of the Highlands Bluebirds boys basketball team (27-3 overall) might have seen it coming in the off-season. Highlands won its first 9th Region quarterfinal game in 11 years Saturday over the Dixie Heights red Colonels (10-21), 72-58 at BB&T Arena on the campus of Northern Kentucky University.
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Highlands advances to the region semifinals at 8 p.m. Monday back at BB&T against the 33rd District champion Conner Cougars (23-5). Conner beat Highlands, 73-61 on Jan. 9 in Hebron.
The last time Highlands won a 9th Region quarterfinal game came on March 4, 2009 in a 71-52 win over St. Henry on the same floor. Highlands had lost its last four region quarterfinal games in 2011, 2012, 2014 and last year against Cooper.
Highlands also matched the win total of the 2002-03 squad. That Bluebirds team also won the 36th District championship and made it to the region semifinals before losing 54-46 to Simon Kenton.
Highlands applied full-court pressure from the opening tip and recorded nine steals off 17 Dixie Heights turnovers while yielding seven turnovers and no steals. The Bluebirds outscored the Colonels, 22-2 off turnovers.
Highlands junior point guard Sam Vinson had three steals to lead the Bluebirds with senior forward Jack Delagrange, junior forward Bryson Cody and sophomore guard Zach Barth recording two each.
"When the team works together, it's amazing," Cody said. "We get easy buckets on the floor and a lot of points. We get (opponents) stirred up and they throw the ball away. We just take it and score."
The Bluebirds used a 9-0 run in the first quarter to go up 11-2 and never looked back. Dixie Heights cut the margin to three at 13-10 in the first quarter, but came no closer. Highlands led 20-15 after the first quarter, 39-29 at halftime and 56-44 heading into the fourth quarter.
The Bluebirds saw three players score in double figures. Vinson had a double-double of 31 points and 13 rebounds to go with four assists and three blocked shots. Senior guard Hunter Ahlfeld followed with 11 and junior forward Luke Muller scored 10. Barth and Cody scored seven each.
"We've got some pretty good sets that we've put in the past couple weeks to get guys open and they've been working really well," Ahlfeld said. "We've been getting a bunch of points off those new sets that we've put in."
Dixie Heights finished the season 10-13 following an 0-8 start. The Colonels made 25-of-55 shots for 45 percent including 1-of-12 from three-point range for eight percent and 7-of-14 free throws for 50 percent. The Colonels also had 29 rebounds, 18 fouls and three assists. Sophomore Keirnan Geraci led Dixie Heights with 17 points and junior Ian Snelling had 16.
"We really just kind of concentrated on (Snelling) a little bit more and talked to our guys about pinching in and limiting his driving, but he does a great job and they do a great job of spacing the floor," Listerman said. "They're very young. They had a steep learning curve and obviously, they've played very well down the stretch. (Dixie Head) Coach (Roger Stainforth, II) does a great job over there. We were fortunate to get the win and are happy move on."
Highlands has lost its last five region semifinal games. The Bluebirds last won in that round on March 9, 2001 at Covington Holmes against Simon Kenton, 49-46. That 2000-2001 squad also won the last 9th Region championship in school history with a 57-53 win over Conner.