The story of successful halftime adjustments led the Blue and White to another 36th District championship Thursday.
The Highlands Bluebirds boys basketball team (23-4 overall) led the Newport Wildcats (7-16) just 34-28 at halftime. But the Bluebirds pulled away in the second half for a convincing 86-55 victory at Dayton for a second straight district crown.
"We just told our kids to trust what we do and keep doing what we were doing," said Kevin Listerman, Highlands Head Coach. "We didn't make a lot of threes in the first half. In the second half, we were able to knock them down and stretch out the lead. That was a big part of it. We kept our pressure up and we told our kids it's tough for (the Wildcats) to play two emotional games back-to-back (Newport beat Newport Central Catholic, 46-39 on Wednesday in the district semifinals). We felt like our conditioning would be a difference and I really feel that it was. Our kids played relaxed. Once we were able to stretch the lead out, we were able to put them away."
The district crown last year marked the first district crown for Highlands since 2008. But the title Thursday marked the first time the Bluebirds repeated as district champions since winning it in 2005 and 2006.
Highlands senior forward Luke Muller led the way scoring 31 points making six three-pointers and all five free-throw attempts. He scored his 1,000th career point with 2:39 left in the game make the first of two free throws. Muller earned tournament most valuable player honors.
The Highlands shooters had to be ready to line up and fire the ball even when on defense. Out of the full-court pressure, teammates grabbed the ball and quickly fired it to them. Senior point guard Sam Vinson followed with 22 points and sophomore guard Will Herald scored 17. Herald made four three pointers.
"You always have to be ready when the game is playing fast," Muller said. "We started off a little slow. But we sped them up to where we wanted to play. Just the hard work that we do outside the court is really paying off in the tournament and it always pays off in the second half."
The Bluebirds made 28-of-58 shots for 48 percent including 13-of-29 three-point tries for 45 percent and 17-of-21 free throws for 81 percent. Highlands also had 26 rebounds, 20 assists, 11 steals, five tipped passes and just six turnovers.
Muller and Vinson had five rebounds each. Junior guard Zach Barth had five points to go with nine assists and four steals. Vinson also had three assists and two blocked shots. Junior forward Oliver Harris had four assists and four rebounds to go with eight points. Barth and Vinson made the all-tournament team.
"It says a lot about our defense and our focus," Harris said. "We stuck with it and got the result we wanted in the end. We all want to attack all the time."
Newport turned the ball over 20 times against the Highlands full-court pressure. The Wildcats also had two assists, two steals and one tipped pass.
Newport made 23-of-47 shots for 49 percent including 6-of-16 from three-point range for 38 percent and 3-of-6 free throws for 50 percent to go with 29 rebounds. Senior guard Alex Greene led the Wildcats with 16 points and sophomore forward Marquez Miller had a team-high eight rebounds. The Wildcats tried to use their athleticism dressing only eight players.
"We knew that they would try to control the tempo," Listerman said. "We knew that they would try to spread us out and get downhill. Our guys did a good job of just staying with the game plan, staying disciplined and doing the little things that we asked them to do (with) adjustments in the press in terms of when and where we were going to trap."
Highlands pulled away with a 14-1 run in the third quarter. The Bluebirds led 48-31 after Vinson recorded an offensive rebound, drew the foul and hit two free throws.
Both teams move on to the region tournament for the third year in a row. Newport has been to the region tournament seven years in a row dating back to 2014 under the guidance of Head Coach Rodney Snapp. The Wildcats won consecutive district crowns in 2018 and 2019.
"I give a lot of credit to Coach Snapp," Listerman said. "(The Wildcats) have been up and down in terms of their record. But they've been playing well as of late. I knew that they would give us everything that they had. I wish them the best of luck next week."
Highlands plays host to a 9th Region quarterfinal game Monday against Ryle (9-12). Game time is 7 p.m.