|Bluebirds Face Blue Colonels for Region Championship Tuesday|
|Highlands senior Jack Delagrange puts a shot up over Conner junior forward Cole Skiles. Highlands beat Conner, 72-58 to advance to the 9th Region championship for the first time since 2001.|
Their opponent in the 33rd District champion Conner Cougars ended their football season in November. A week earlier, Conner's girls basketball team did the same thing to the Bluebirds in the 9th Region quarterfinals in a 48-44 double overtime victory.
But this battle belonged to the 36th District champion Bluebirds (28-3 overall) as the avenged one of their three regular season road 9th Region losses with a 66-49 win over the Cougars at BB&T Arena on the campus of Northern Kentucky University. The loss snapped Conner's 17-game winning streak.
"I think we were very focused," said Kevin Listerman, Highlands Head Coach. "This group is that way. They don't get too high. They don't get too low. They just kind of play. That's a tremendous attribute. That makes them fun to coach."
Highlands senior guards Jacob Brass, Hunter Ahlfeld and forward Jack Delagrange played on the football team in the fall that finished 6-5 losing 38-28 at Conner in the first round of the Class 5A playoffs. Sophomore guard Isaac Surrey played quarterback and junior guard Daniel Buchanan played defensive back on the junior varsity team.
Highlands earned another shot against the 35th District champion Covington Catholic Colonels (28-5) in the region championship game Tuesday back at NKU. Game time is 7:30 p.m. The blue Colonels handed the Bluebirds their biggest loss of the season, 65-39 in Park Hills on Feb. 1.
"(CovCath) is super good," Listerman said. "They don't lose in this building very often. Someone has to step up and make some plays. It might as well be us. At this point, there's nobody else left. We're going to go in and play the way we're capable of playing and we'll let the chips fall where they may."
The Bluebirds had not been to the region championship game since winning their last region crown in 2001. They'd lost five straight region semifinal games between 2002 and 2009.
Highlands started the season 14-0. But Conner (23-6) handed the Bluebirds their first loss on Jan. 9 in Hebron, 73-61. In that defeat, Conner saw junior guard Riley Osterbur and senior guard/forward Jalen Scott score 19 points each with junior guard Spencer Couzins adding 15.
Scott surpassed that total in this one for Conner with 24 points making 4-of-8 three-point shots. But Osterbur scored just three and Couzins two. Junior forward Cole Skiles finished with eight for the Cougars.
The Cougars ran a number of screens offensively. But the Highlands defense recorded nine steals off 16 Conner turnovers while committing just one turnover. Junior point guard Sam Vinson recorded three steals and sophomore guard Zach Barth had two.
"Sam does an awful lot for us," Listerman said. "The guys just kind of follow his lead, but I've seen this from him since he was in middle school. I've been licking my chops waiting for him to get here and become that guy every night and that's what he is. He's just a tremendous competitor. When we need a rebound, he gets it. When we need a block, he's there. It allows everybody else to play very play. I'm just glad he's on our team."
The Bluebirds also blocked six shots to one for the Cougars. Vinson blocked four shots with Delagrange and sophomore forward Oliver Harris blocking one each.
"We knew who their shooters were and who would be dangerous," Delagrange said. "We did our best to make all the switches on all the screens and make them shoot tough shots. I think we did that and that's why the result was what it was."
Conner made just 17-of-45 shots for 38 percent including 5-of-16 from three-point range for 31 percent and 10-of-17 free throws for 59 percent. The Cougars also had just 30 rebounds, 17 fouls and eight assists.
Highlands made 22-of-45 shots for 49 percent including 8-of-18 from three-point range for 44 percent and 14-of-15 free throws for 93 percent. The Bluebirds had 24 rebounds, 17 fouls and 12 assists.
Vinson put up another monster night making 2-of-3 three-point tries and 5-of-6 free throws on his way to 25 points. Vinson also had eight rebounds and three assists. He scored his 1,000th point in the victory.
"We have ball handlers all around us. We have shooters all around us," Vinson said. "Every day in practice, we get better and that just helps us propel forward when we get into games and get into tough situations. We have our teammates and coaches backing us up. We stayed mentally tough and came out on top."
Junior forward Luke Muller and Ahlfeld continued to put up big numbers as well. Muller made all five free throws on his way to 17 points and Ahlfeld scored 14. Barth also made two triples on his way to eight points.
Highlands trailed 17-14 after the first quarter but used a 14-7 second quarter to go up 28-24 at halftime. Toward the end of the half, Vinson drew a shooting foul. Moments after the call, Scott received a technical foul and Vinson made 3-of-4 free throws to give Highlands that halftime lead.
The Bluebirds stretched that margin to 47-35 entering the fourth quarter. Vinson came through again hitting a jumper just before time expired.
Highlands made sure the lead stayed at a comfortable margin in the fourth quarter. The Bluebirds spread the floor and tried to take high-percentage shots if not drawing fouls and making free throws.
"We were looking to take a smart shot," Muller said. "We took a couple shots we weren't happy with, but we regrouped and when Sam got his fourth foul in the fourth quarter, our other guards stepped up and that was major. (Vinson) is obviously the major ball handler. We're going to need guys down the stretch who can handle the ball when he's in trouble."
The 28 wins surpasses the total of the 2002-03 Highlands team that finished 27-3 that also won the 36th District championship, but lost 54-46 to Simon Kenton in the region semifinals. The Bluebirds had not won that many games in a season since the 1997-98 Highlands region champion team that finished 31-4. That team lost 72-67 to Scott County in the state quarterfinals.