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Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Highlands Boys Hoops Wins Top 10 Battle

Bluebirds Hold Off Tomcats Down Stretch

PHOTO: G. Michael Graham. Highlands junior guard Leyton Read (4) gets down in defensive position against Ashland guard Colin Porter (left) in the season opener Monday. Highlands jumped out to a 15-2 lead in the first quarter and held on for an 84-75 victory.

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Down the stretch, none other than Sam Vinson took the ball with the game on the line.

The senior point guard for the Highlands Bluebirds boys basketball team and Northern Kentucky University commit had plenty of space in the lane against a man-to-man defense. Vinson finished with 30 points including 12 in the fourth quarter to help Highlands hold off the Ashland Blazer Tomcats, 84-75 to open the delayed season because of the Coronavirus 2019 pandemic.

"Getting out of the gate (strong) is always a plus," said Kevin Listerman, Highlands Head Coach. "I felt we'd be ready and would get out to a good start. Give Ashland all the credit. (The Tomcats) just battled and battled. They have a great ballclub. They're going to be a heck of a team. We made a few plays down the stretch to keep them at bay."

Vinson also had 11 rebounds for a double-double, three blocked shots, two assists and a steal. Vinson also had a slam dunk with 2:22 left in the third quarter.

But Vinson did not see many double-teams or help off his teammates because the Tomcats had to guard every Bluebird on the floor or give up wide-open shots. Seven different Bluebirds scored in the huge victory.

"Just as a whole team, we've been waiting a long time to finally be able to get on the court and play," Vinson said. "We all believe in each other. We all have each others' back. We're a really close team together on and off the court so we all trust each other for a one-on-one situation. If you have it, attack and finish at the rim. If not, kick it out and we all trust each other for someone to hit that big shot."

Highlands defeated an Ashland team that finished 33-0 last season winning the 16th Region while Highlands lost 59-54 to Covington Catholic in the 9th Region championship game at Northern Kentucky University. But the state tournament did not occur last spring as a result of the pandemic. Ashland last lost a game in the second round of the state tournament to eventual state champion Louisville Trinity, 60-30 on March 8, 2019.

The Bluebirds saw four players score in double-figures in the win. Sophomore guard William Herald made five three-pointers on his way to 15 points with junior guard Zach Barth scoring 12 and junior forward Oliver Harris scoring 11. Senior forward Luke Muller followed with nine points and seven rebounds.

Highlands made 28-of-55 shots for just under 51 percent and 20-of-25 free throws for 80 percen. The Bluebirds also had 40 rebounds, 10 assists, six blocked shots, seven steals and 13 turnovers.

The Bluebirds came out in a 2-2-1 press and built a 15-2 lead prompting an Ashland timeout. Herald made three triples in that quarter. Highlands led 24-13 after one quarter and 40-28 at halftime. The Tomcats trimmed the margin to 63-56 entering the third quarter.

"That's the greatest thing about our team. We don't have just one or two options," Herald said. "Every one of our players on the court, even on the bench can score any way they want to. That helps us when we kick it out to each other. We're unselfish with the ball. We play fast. It's fun to play with each other."

Ashland saw junior Cole Villers hit a shot and ensuing free throw to cut the margin to 69-66 with 3:28 left in the fourth quarter. But Herald made a triple and Vinson a free throw to put the margin back to seven at 73-66. Vinson hit 5-of-6 free throws down the stretch to seal the win.

"You expect a veteran club like we have to stay under control and we did," Listerman said. "I was really pleased that we stretched it out there at the end. We have guys who can knock shots down. That's a credit to their work (ethic). They put the time in. We can do a lot of things and give a lot of freedom offensively because they play unselfish."

Villers led the Tomcats with 18 points. Ashland also had four players score in double digits. The Tomcats made 31-of-65 shots for 48 percent and 6-of-8 free throws for 75 percent to go with 24 rebounds, three assists, four steals and five turnovers.

Listerman did say he'd like to see the Bluebirds play better defensively. Ashland did penetrate the lane better after the first four minutes.

"(The Tomcats) do a great job of getting you to collapse and kick," Listerman said. "We were able to change defenses enough and got some stops at critical times and that was a big difference."

Teams are able to schedule 30 games. But Highlands has 26 on the schedule. The next one is Saturday at 2 p.m. against the defending 34th District champion St. Henry Crusaders in Fort Thomas.

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