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The balance that has carried the Highlands Bluebirds boys basketball team all season hit a big level to help them make the Sweet 16 State Tournament at Rupp Arena.
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Highlands (26-4 overall) saw all five starters score in double figures in the three 9th Region Tournament games. That happened even though they came out of the 104-62 region quarterfinal win over the Ryle Raiders with four minutes left in the third quarter at Russell Bridges Gymnasium in Fort Thomas.
Senior point guard and Northern Kentucky university commit Sam Vinson averages 22.2 points and 9.7 rebounds per game. Senior forward Luke Muller follows at 16.5 with sophomore guard Will Herald and junior guard Zach Barth averaging 13.7 and 10.5 points. The fifth starter in junior forward Oliver Harris is not far behind at 8.2.
That balance could be a huge factor in the first round game Thursday at 11 a.m. against the 3rd Region champion Muhlenberg County Mustangs (19-1) in a battle of the two hottest teams entering the state tournament. Highlands has won 17 straight and Muhlenberg County has won 16 in a row. The head coach of the Mustangs is Kyle Eads.
"Your daily process is about doing the right thing at the right time and doing it day after day after day," said Kevin Listerman, Highlands Head Coach. "I think we've got a group of kids that understand that. But at the same, we have a group that's confident enough to roll into Lexington and believe that we belong there number one, and two, that we have a realistic shot at winning things and playing in that 8 p.m. game on Saturday night."
Muhlenberg County is located in Greenville in between Hopkinsville and Owensboro off the Western Kentucky Parkway. In 2009, Muhlenberg North and Muhlenberg South merged to form Muhlenberg County High.
"You don't come out of Owensboro and the 3rd Region with a 19-1 record without being really good," Listerman. "I know that they hang their hat on their defense. Coach Eads has done a great job down there and they're led by a great group of seniors. We think that they're going to be vey good and it's going to be a big-time challenge for us to get out of that first round for sure."
Only two other teams have double-digit winning streaks entering the state tournament. They are the 4th Region champion Bowling Green Purples and 16th Region champion Ashland Blazer Tomcats with 11 each.
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Highlands has scored 2,506 points and allowed 1,922 on the season for averages of 83.5 and just more than 64 points per game this season. The Bluebirds have scored 100 or more points three times this season.
The Bluebirds have done well spreading teams out this season. The floor at Rupp Arena could lend a bigger help with that. It helps that Highlands has taken care of the ball well all season.
"Every practice, we have a ball-handling period where we go at it pretty hard for 10 minutes," said Daniel Buchanan, Highlands senior guard. "That always keeps our (ball handling) tight. Everybody knows how to handle the ball."
During their winning streak, the Bluebird victories have all come by at least 10 points with the exception of the 74-68 win over St. Henry in the region semifinals at Holmes. Muhlenberg County has had two close scares during its winning streak. The Mustangs needed a last-second triple by senior guard Cole Vincent to win at Grayson County, 56-53 on Feb. 27 and edged Owensboro, 53-51 at home on Feb. 9.
Muhlenberg County has outscored opponents, 1,212 to 871 for averages of between 60 and 61 points per game to between 43 and 44 points per game. Senior guard Nash Devine and Vincent lead the Mustangs averaging 16.5 and 12 points per game. Devine has an offer from NCAA Division III Sewanee: University of the South located west of Chattanooga, Tennessee.
The unusual start time may throw some people off. But Listerman expects the Bluebirds to rise up to the challenge.
"If it were 11 a.m. on Saturday, I might be concerned," Listerman said. "I don't think it's really going to affect the student-athletes because they're used to getting up and going to school. Our kids are going to be excited to play whenever it is that we get to tip off and get on the floor again. The format is different. But I don't know that it makes a whole lot of difference to our kids because we haven't been there before so we don't know any better, which is I guess a good thing. I personally like it because we'll get up and we'll be ready to play. You don't have to wait around all day to try to figure out what you're going to do and how to fill the day. You get up, you eat and you get to go play. I think our kids will be ready to go."
Listerman indicated the game could come down to whoever dictates the tempo better in a battle of contrasting styles. Highlands likes to be off and running once someone snags a rebound or comes up with a style on any part of the court. But Muhlenberg County likes to slow things down and work for good shots. The Mustangs did trap the wings against Grayson County.
"We play better when the game is up and down. We've had a couple games where it has taken us a while to get to that point," Listerman said. "We hope to enforce our will on them in the first round for sure."
The Mustangs also won the region in 2010 in their first year as a school. But the Mustangs lost 73-63 to 12th Region champion West Jessamine in the first round.
Highlands owns 13 region championships in school history. The Bluebirds won the 9th Region four times out of five seasons between 1997 and 2001. Their last tournament win came in the first round of the 1998 state tournament on March 18 by a 66-49 win over 1st Region champion Graves County. They finished state runner-up in 1997.