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Only one team that beat the Highlands Bluebirds boys basketball team remained in the region tournaments Wednesday.
The Bluebirds (25-4 overall) had to beat that team in the St. Henry Crusaders (18-4) to advance back to the 9th Region title game. Highlands took the lead in the final minute of the first quarter for good then used an 8-0 run to start the second quarter on its way to a 74-68 victory at Covington Holmes. The Bluebirds have won 16 in a row.
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"They're not satisfied. But we try to stay in the moment, try to stay true to our process and trust what we do," said Kevin Listerman, Highlands Head Coach. "They did a great job of that. We did a great job defensively forcing them to take some tough shots. We were efficient and that's the most important thing."
St. Henry handed Highlands its first loss in the second game of the season by an 82-80 score on Jan. 9 in Fort Thomas. St. Henry also beat Highlands in Erlanger last season. The Bluebirds last beat the Crusaders, 76-60 in Fort Thomas on Dec. 7, 2018.
Highlands plays 33rd District champion Conner (17-6) in the region championship game Friday back at Holmes at 7 p.m. The Bluebirds rallied past the Cougars for a 78-75 win in Fort Thomas on Feb. 6.
Highlands put all five starters in double figures in the victory. Senior point guard Sam Vinson led the way with a double-double of 20 points, 12 rebounds to go with seven assists, two steals and one blocked shot. Vinson made 10-of-11 free throws
The Crusaders guarded the perimeter tight allowing Vinson and others to penetrate and attack the basket. Vinson said attacking the rim against the likes of St. Henry inside players like senior center Cody Teeten presented unique challenges.
"We work great as a team," Vinson said. "They have some great bigs down there. They're really physical. When you're (attacking) you have to go off two (feet), not just one. You can't fall away or anything like that. You have to get the contact first then finish through them."
Junior guard Zach Barth scored 16 points for Highlands. Junior forward Oliver Harris and sophomore guard Will Herald scored 13 each with senior forward Luke Muller scoring 12. Listerman also credited junior guard Leyton Read and junior forward Cole Kocher for providing some sparks off the bench.
"We just made it like a regular game. We knew there would be a big crowd," Herald said. "We were excited. We played hard, great and won the game. There is always room for improvement. But we're playing great right now."
Highlands made 26-of-55 shots for 47 percent including 7-of-15 from three-point range for 47 percent and 15-of-17 free throws for 88 percent. The Bluebirds also had 39 rebounds, 11 fouls, 17 assists, 15 turnovers, four blocked shots and five steals.
"We did a good job finishing all the way around to be honest," Listerman said. "We're sharing the ball and we're getting it to the open guy. The pace slowed down in the second half. They were coming from behind and we were trying to dictate the tempo. I thought we did a very good job finishing the game."
St. Henry made 27-of-70 shots for 39 percent including 6-of-24 from three-point range for 25 percent and 8-of-12 free throws for 67 percent. The Crusaders also had 18 fouls, 13 assists, 12 turnovers, five blocked shots and 12 steals.
St. Henry saw three players score in double digits. Senior guards Wyatt Vieth and Cory Shea led the way with 22 and 15 points respectively. Senior forward Jude Bessler had a double-double of 14 points and 11 rebounds. Vieth came into the region tournament averaging 19.2 points per game and Bessler averaged 14.1.
"We had to make sure Vieth and Bessler didn't get a lot of rebounds," Barth said. "They were up five rebounds toward the end of the game and we finished up two. You have to go straight up and make them miss the shot. You can't foul them and send them to the (free-throw) line."
During the 8-0 run in the second quarter, Vinson had a three-point play then recorded a steal and dished to Barth for the score. Barth then hit a triple at the top of the key to put Highlands up 29-19 with 6:32 left in the first half.
Highlands led 36-27 at halftime. Vinson found Harris for a three-point play with 33.1 seconds left in the half.
The Bluebirds led 55-44 entering the fourth quarter and held off a Crusader run. St. Henry cut the margin to 61-54. But Barth scored three straight to put Highlands up 67-54.
The Crusaders trimmed the margin to 69-63 with 1:30 left. But following a Crusader charge, Vinson made three of our free throws putting Highlands up 72-63 with 36.5 seconds left. Muller made two free throws with 26.7 seconds left.
St. Henry led by veteran head coach Dave Faust won a second straight All "A" State championship this season before losing 67-61 to Dixie Heights in the 34th District championship game. But the Crusaders ended Covington Catholic's run of 16 straight wins in the first and second rounds of the region tournament with a 61-60 win at Holmes on Monday to make it to the semifinals.
"They're not All "A" State champions for nothing," Listerman said. "They're a heck of a ballclub and they were going to keep fighting. We talked about it being a 32-minute game and I thought our kids kept their composure and their focus for the most part in those 32 minutes and we were fortunate enough to win. I have nothing but respect for Coach Faust and those seniors over there have had a heck of career over there at St. Henry. I wish them nothing but the best."
Highlands lost 59-54 to Covington Catholic in the region title game last year at BB&T Arena. The Bluebirds last won the region championship in 2001 finishing a run of four crowns in five seasons.