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Monday, March 2, 2020

Here's Who the Highlands Boys, Girls Basketball Squads Will Play in the Region Tournament

Odd Schedule Maps Out Region Tournament

PHOTO: G. Michael Graham, Fort Thomas Matters. Highlands junior point guard Sam Vinson (right) scouts the floor in the 36th District championship win over Newport on Friday. The Bluebirds do not play against until Saturday against Dixie Heights in the 9th Region quarterfinals at 8 p.m.
The 9th Region Tournament at BB&T Arena on the campus of Northern Kentucky University has an odd set-up this season.

There will be no games played Tuesday and Thursday this week because the NKU women's basketball team earned the right to host Horizon League Tournament games both days if they win Tuesday against the University of Detroit Mercy. The NKU men earned a bye into the semifinals to be played in Indianapolis on March 9.

That will leave eight days between games for the 26-3 Highlands Bluebirds boys basketball team and the rest of the region. On Friday, the Bluebirds won their first 36th District championship since 2008 with a 75-49 victory against the host Newport Wildcats.

Highlands drew the 34th District runner-up Dixie Heights Colonels (10-20) in the latest game Saturday scheduled to start at 8 p.m. The Bluebirds beat the red Colonels, 83-72 on Feb. 5. Highlands is seeking the first win in the region tournament since 2009.

"It comes down to playing well," said Kevin Listerman, Highlands Head Coach. "You have to have guys step up in big moments. We have some seniors that are capable of doing that. I think we're going to be in the right frame of mind. Hopefully, we do those things well and we get to advance."

Highlands has scored the most points in the region with 2,264 for an average of just more than 78 per game and given up 1,723 for an average of just under 60. The Bluebirds have made 806-of-1616 shots for nearly 50 percent including 264-of-647 three-point tries for 41 percent and 388-of-533 free throws for 73 percent. They've also grabbed 816 rebounds for an average of just more than 28 per game.

Junior point guard Sam Vinson has led the way all season averaging 24.5 points per game and 8.6 rebounds. Junior forward Luke Muller averages just more than 16 points and senior Hunter Ahlfeld averages between nine and 10 points per game.

"Every practice this whole year, we've been focused and we try to get better," Vinson said. "I try to push the guys. The seniors try to push the guys. We all work together. We have great chemistry. We're great to each other."

Dixie Heights lost its first eight games of the season. But the Colonels and Head Coach Roger Stainforth have won five of the last seven games since the Highlands loss. They beat Lloyd Memorial, 71-49 in the 34th semifinals before battling St. Henry in a 55-50 loss in the title game.

Dixie Heights has been outscored, 1,995-1,855 for averages of 66.5 to just under 62 points per game. The Colonels have made 660-of-1,367 shots for just more than 48 percent including 149-of-438 three-point tries for 34 percent and 336-of-485 free throws for just more than 69 percent. Junior Ian Snelling averages 17.4 points per game to lead Dixie Heights and sophomore Keirnan Geraci averages 14.4.

"They're very well-coached. They don't try to do too much. Coach Stainforth does a very good job out there. They're going to play very hard," Listerman said. "We struggled out there against them. They're very disciplined. At this point, all eight teams are very good. Anybody can knock anybody off in the region tournament so we're going to have to be ready to play."

Highlands finished 14-3 against the 9th Region including 5-3 against the rest of the field. Their three losses came to the other three district champions in the region. The winner takes on either Conner or Beechwood in the region semifinals on Monday. The championship is Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.

The Highlands Bluebirds girls basketball team (21-10) received a tough draw to open the region tournament Monday at 8 p.m. against the 33rd District runner-up Conner Lady Cougars (20-11). Highlands beat the Lady Cougars, 64-54 in Hebron on Feb. 4.

But Conner reeled off six straight wins after that game. The Lady Cougars lost 56-44 to defending state champion Ryle in the 33rd District championship Thursday. Conner started the season 7-1.

"We had a lot of inexperience coming in at the beginning of the season," said Michelle Gambrel, first-year Conner Head Coach. "This time of year, I really like where our team is at."

Highlands owns eight straight seasons of at least 20 wins. The Bluebirds won their sixth straight 36th District crown with a 44-41 win over Newport Central Catholic on Thursday. They overcame a 1-5 stretch in holiday tournaments.

"I think the players called a player-only meeting and knew that wasn't how we wanted our season to be the rest of the year," said Jaime Walz-Richey, Highlands Head Coach. "A lot of the credit goes to the girls for getting together on one page and doing things the right way, making things work and getting things done on the court like they did. We had a great run. Now we have a new season and it starts Monday night."

Highlands has outscored opponents, 1,675-1,337 for averages of just more than 50 to 43. The Bluebirds have hit 584-of-1,398 shots for just under 42 percent including 190-of-539 for 35 percent and 317-of-449 free throws for 70 percent. The Bluebirds also have 774 rebounds for an average of 25 per game. Senior guard Piper Macke averages 12.3 points per game to lead Highlands.

"Highlands has got a ton of experience and Jaime does an awesome job with those kids," Gambrel said. "They will be prepared. They will have something. It will be a good, competitive game."

The Highlands players know they have to play better than the district championship game to advance in the region tournament. Three players are out for the season. When they made aggressive moves toward the basket against NewCath, good things happened.

"You have to go with your first instinct and not second-guess yourself because it's a better option than taking your time and possibly traveling and turning the ball over," said Kelsey Listerman, Highlands junior forward. "That's just being able to be calm with the ball, know what you have to do, read the defenders and take what they're giving you mainly."

Conner has outscored opponents, 1,793-1,620 for averages of just under 58 to just more than 52 per game. The Lady Cougars have made 671-of-1,378 shots for just under 49 percent including 116-of-300 three-point tries for 39 percent and 335-of-483 free throws for just under 70 percent. Conner also has 955 rebounds on the year for an average of 31 per game.

But Conner has a huge advantage in two senior centers Tyra Murphy and Maddie Drummonds. Murphy averages 16.6 points per game and Drummonds averages 12.4.

"Murphy and Drummonds are two great post players," Richey said. "They get a lot of things done in the paint and right outside on the perimeters. We're going to have to be able to rebound the ball, limit them to one shot and make sure they take the shots we want them to take, not easy lay-ups."

Highlands finished 13-2 against 9th Region opponents including 5-2 against the current field. The Bluebirds lost to NewCath during the regular season and Ryle. Highlands did not play Ludlow in the regular season.

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