The unique situation created by Coronavirus 2019 precautions gave the Highlands Bluebirds basketball teams something extra to shoot for in terms of the 9th Region quarterfinals.
That is one final home game.
The Highlands basketball teams earned that honor with 36th District Tournament championships at Dayton. The Highlands boys (23-4 overall) downed Newport, 86-55 Thursday for a second straight tournament crown and 14th straight win and the girls (19-6) won their seventh straight district title with a 45-36 win over Newport Central Catholic the following day.
"I think the tournament format is a very good format," said Kevin Listerman, Highlands Boys Head Coach. "A lot of regions use it. I think our guys will respond. I don't think it's going to be a huge deal. The bottom line is there are eight good teams left in the region and you're going to have to play three really good games to get out. The balance in the region is more than it has been in a long time."
The Highlands boys have four seniors in guards Sam Vinson, Daniel Buchanan and forwards Bryson Cody and Luke Muller. The Highlands girls have five seniors in forwards Kelsey Listerman, Rory O'Hara, Emma Riccobene and guards Emma Mallery and Kate Vaught.
They knew the stands would not be as filled as usual as a result of Coronavirus 2019 precautions. But restrictions have loosened in recent weeks. O'Hara's Aunt and Uncle in Sheri and Tony Dougherty along with her cousins kids in Jared, Brooke and Madisson have supported her throughout her varsity career at games for example.
"I think that is going to help some people relax that have never gone to a region tournament," O'Hara said. "It's definitely going to be different than playing at BB&T. It was amazing having more fans at the games because you can feel the difference. You know there's people behind you supporting you."
Both teams found out their opponents Saturday in the annual 9th Region blind draw at Covington Holmes. The Highlands boys drew the 33rd District runner-up Ryle Raiders (9-12) and the girls drew the Covington Holy Cross Lady Indians (16-8). The Highlands boys play the quarterfinal game Monday at 7 p.m. and the girls play Thursday at the same time.
This marks the first time since 2008 the games will not be held at the neutral site of BB&T Arena. The Horizon League did not allow fans at games this year. The region semifinal and championship games take place at Covington Holmes. The boys semifinal games take place Wednesday at 6 and 8:30 p.m. with the title game occurring Friday at 7 p.m. The girls semifinal games take place Saturday at the same times and the championship game is March 29 at 7 p.m.
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Highlands Boys vs. Ryle Preview:
Highlands and Ryle did not play each other this season.
But Highlands has the upper hand in terms of playing at home and in recent region tournament experience. The Bluebirds are making their third straight 9th Region Tournament appearance while Ryle is in it for the first time since 2018.
Highlands is 12-3 against region competition including a 5-2 mark against teams in the region tournament. The five wins came against the four teams on the other side of the bracket.
Covington Catholic may again be the favorite. The Colonels are 24-3 with the three losses coming at state-ranked North Laurel in overtime (89-87), at home against Cincinnati (Ohio) St. Xavier (52-49) and at St. Henry (61-60). CovCath has won the last three region crowns and the state championship in 2018. But the Bluebirds have the longest winning streak entering the tournament having outscored opponents, 2,251-1,725 for an average of just more than 83 to just under 64 points per game.
The key for the Bluebirds has been balance with three players averaging in double figures. Vinson leads the way averaging 22.5 points and 9.6 rebounds per game. Muller and sophomore guard Will Herald follow averaging 16.8 and 13.8 points per game.
"We've been staying normal. We're just taking it like it's another game," said Leyton Read, Highlands junior guard. "We're preparing like we always do. Lately we've been playing probably our best basketball all season. We've moving the ball really well. Everyone is coming together. The scoreboard is showing. I hope it works out during the region."
Opponents have outscored Ryle, 1,333-1,237 for averages of between 63 and 64 points per game to just below 59 points. The Raiders have lost six of seven coming into the game. They are 0-4 against the region tournament field.
Senior guard Tyler Bush and junior guard Donovan Robinson lead the Raiders averaging 17.3 and 13.8 points per game. Coach Listerman said Robinson can shoot the three and attack the rim. He also noted the Raiders have some nice complementary guys and an inside presence.
"They upset Cooper in their district tournament and they played well in the first half vs. Conner," Coach Listerman said. "(Ryle Head Coach) Keaton Belcher is a good coach over there. I know they'll be ready to go and they'll give us everything they can handle."
More fans have been allowed at games recently. But there will be a watch party at the football field at 7 p.m. Monday. Individuals have to bring a chair and mask. The concession stand will be open. Chairs with a rubber bottom and flat surface along with blankets will be allowed. But only one person is allowed per blanket.
Highlands drove to the region championship game last year losing 59-54 to Covington Catholic. The Bluebirds won their first two region tournament games since 2009 and drove to the region title game for the first time since 2001.
Highlands girls vs. Holy Cross Preview:
The Bluebirds edged the Lady Indians, 48-46 in Fort Thomas on Feb. 4.
Highlands has outscored opponents, 1,267-885 on the season for averages of between 50 and 51 points per game to between 36 and 35 points per game. The Bluebirds have won eight of nine entering the game. Highlands is 11-4 in region play with a 3-4 mark against teams in the region field.
Kelsey Listerman and O'Hara continue to lead the Bluebirds averaging 15 and 11.4 points per game. Highlands Head Coach Jaime Walz-Richey credited the girls for learning from mistakes each game.
The Bluebirds also have every players on the roster available this year in the tournament. Mallery and junior center CC Shick were not able to play in the region tournament last year.
Holy Cross has three of four entering the game. The Lady Indians have outscored opponents, 1,325-1,081 for averages of between 55 and 56 points per game to just above 45 points per game.
Senior guard Grace Bezold and freshman forward/guard Julia Hunt lead the Lady Indians averaging 14.8 and 13.5 points per game. Highlands held Hunt to nine points, but Bezold scored 18 in the regular season meeting.
"We just have to continue to play the type of basketball that we want to play. I have to give a lot of credit to the girls," Richey said. "We're able to do different things each game. The girls are able to adjust. We put a new wrinkle in for the NC game and they did extremely well. The coaches will come up with a game plan and the girls have done a good job following that game plan. We'll just need to do that from each game on."
Highlands has lost three of the last four season in the quarterfinal round of the region tournament. But the losses came against the 33rd District runner-up. The lone quarterfinal win during that stretch came two years ago against Holy Cross.