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Friday, March 26, 2021

Highlands Wins 9th Region Title, Headed to Rupp Arena

Bluebirds Headed to State for First Time in 20 Years

PHOTO: G. Michael Graham, Fort Thomas Matters. Highlands junior Oliver Harris (white) sets up for a free-throw attempt in the first half of the 9th Region championship game at Covington Holmes on Friday.

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There was little doubt the Highlands Bluebirds boys basketball team came into the 9th Region Tournament playing the best of any team in the tournament with a 14-game winning streak.

Following a 104-62 thrashing of the Ryle Raiders in the quarterfinals in Fort Thomas on Monday, Highlands took care of St. Henry in the semifinals by a 74-68 count Wednesday at Covington Holmes. The Bluebirds needed to extend the streak to 17 straight Friday to make it to the Commonwealth of Kentucky's promised land of Rupp Arena in Lexington.

Highlands pulled away in the final three minutes, 50 seconds to record a 77-67 victory over the Conner Cougars to earn its first 9th Region championship since 2001. Conner is still seeking its first region crown since 1993.

Highlands faces the 3rd Region winner on Thursday, April 1 at 11 a.m. at Rupp Arena in the first round of the state tournament. The opponent will be the Owensboro Catholic Aces (18-9) or the Muhlenberg County Mustangs (18-1). The teams face off at Owensboro Sportscenter on Sunday at 4 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.

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Conner scored the game's first four points before Vinson scored five straight to put Highlands up 5-4. The Bluebirds led by three at 9-6 at one point after Herald made a triple from the right wing with 3:45 left in the quarter.

Highlands (26-4 overall) once again saw all five starters score in double figures. Senior point guard and the tournament's most valuable player Sam Vinson again led the way with 21 points to go with eight rebounds, two assists, four blocked shots and two steals.

Junior guard Zach Barth and senior forward Luke Muller found spots on the all-tournament team with 15 and 14 points respectively. Sophomore guard Will Herald and junior forward Oliver Harris followed with 12 and 10 respectively.

"We had some good looks in the first half. We didn't knock them down," said Kevin Listerman, Highlands Head Coach. "In the second half, we changed the action a bit. We got it more inside-outside. The ball penetrated the zone a bit more and we got the kick-outs. We caught it in rhythm and knocked shots down. Our team is sharing the ball well. I couldn't be more proud of them."

Barth, Muller and Herald made four three-pointers each. The other two starters made one each. But the Bluebirds have scored multiple ways this year. Conner mostly played man-to-man defense, but did switch to a 1-2-2 zone at one point in the game.

"It says a lot about how we can adjust to defenses, how versatile we are and how we work on all parts of the game," Harris said. "We just went to a different offense (against the zone), swung the ball and made some shots."

Playing in a state tournament will be nothing new for Muller. He helped guide the Highlands boys golf team to two region championships in three seasons. The Bluebirds finished sixth at state this past fall.

Highlands used a six-man rotation in the game. Highlands junior Leyton Read came off the bench to give the Bluebirds quality minutes. He scored five points including one three.

Read drew the assignment of guarding the Conner guards. Conner (17-7) likes to penetrate and kick.

"The defense played a big role," Read said. "If it wasn't for our defense, we probably wouldn't have won. Running out and keeping a hand out high really helped us stop their three-point game."

Highlands made 24-of-53 shots for 45 percent including 15-of-38 from three-point range for just under 40 percent and 14-of-17 free throws for 82 percent. The Bluebirds also had 18 assists, six turnovers, nine blocked shots and eight steals. Vinson blocked four shots and Harris rejected three. Barth had six assists and Muller had four. Mueller also had three steals.

The Cougars had four players in double digits going eight deep. Sophomore guard Ayden Lohr led the way with 18 points and sophomore guard Landen Hamilton made four three-pointers on his way to 17 points. Senior forward Cole Skiles and senior guard Spencer Couzins scored 10 each. Skiles grabbed 15 rebounds for a double-double.

Couzins came into the game averaging 14.7 points per game. He had one three. Couzins scored 19 points against Highlands during the regular season meeting.

"We knew (Couzins) was a great shooter," Muller said. "He was really hot coming into this game. Coach (Listerman) really had us prepared. We knew he was going to make shots. But if we kept him at a reasonable number, we were going to win the game."

Conner made 22-of-62 shots for 36 percent including 7-of-21 from three-point range for 33 percent and 16-of-22 free throws for 73 percent. But the Cougars made just two threes in the third quarter and none in the fourth quarter.

Conner outrebounded Highlands, 44-29 including a 21-7 mark on the offensive glass. But the Cougars only outscored the Bluebirds, 8-7 on second-chance points. The Cougars also had 15 fouls, 12 assists, 11 turnovers, no blocked shots and three steals.

Barth gave Highlands the lead after the first quarter at 12-11. He made a triple from the left wing.

The Bluebirds led 19-16 in the second quarter after Read made a triple from the right wing. But Conner made four triples down the stretch. Three straight gave the Cougars a 27-19 lead with 1:40 left in the quarter.

Highlands cut the margin to 27-25 after Muller made a triple with 30 seconds left. The Bluebirds had a chance to go ahead. But a three did not go down and Hamilton made one at the other end from the left corner in the final seconds to give Conner a 30-25 lead at halftime.

Harris hit a jumper from the left side to cut Conner's lead to 30-27 just 20 seconds into the second half. But the Cougars used a 10-3 run to go up 40-30 with 6:07 left in the third quarter following three Lohr free throws.

But the Bluebirds responded with a 14-0 run on four triples. Herald hit two each with Barth and Muller making one each. Herald's second one gave Highlands a 41-40 lead and Muller extended it to 44-40.

"We actually do simulations like that in practice almost every day where we're down 10 or eight," Listerman said. "We talk about handling the situation so our guys didn't really look around. They just knew they had to go make some plays and we did. We got a couple stops and started rolling. The biggest thing is to just keep trusting what we do. These kids just do that. They trust each other, which is special to see."

The Cougars did use a 9-0 run to go up 49-44. But Muller hit a jumper and Barth made a three from the left wing to tie the game at 49 going into the fourth quarter.

Highlands took the lead for good with 4:58 left in the game when Barth made another triple at 59-56. After a Skiles score, Muller made two more threes to extend the lead to 65-58.

Lohr made three more free throws to trim the margin to 65-61 with 2:56 left in the game. But Highlands scored the next eight points to go up 73-61 making 6-of-8 free throws. The Bluebirds added four more after that to seal the game.

Highlands won the regular season meeting against Conner on Feb. 6 at Russell Bridges Gym. The Bluebirds rallied from a double-digit deficit to win 78-75.

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Listerman has talked about the process since he took the job in the spring of 2013. The Bluebirds made the region tournament his first season led by the likes of Parker Harris and Drew Houliston, but lost in the first round to Covington Holmes.

Highlands missed the region tournament the next four seasons. But the senior class of 2019 led by Ben Sisson, Ryan Leigh, Alex Starkey and Nate Roberts helped the Bluebirds back to the region tournament before losing to Cooper in the quarterfinals.

The Bluebirds broke through winning their first 36th District Tournament last year since 2008 and driving all the way to the region championship game. Highlands lost 59-54 to Covington Catholic in what ended up being the last game of the postseason for both teams as a result of Coronavirus 2019 pandemic. Jack Delagrange, Hunter Ahlfeld and Jacob Brass were the seniors on that team.

Listerman pointed to former players who attended the game for helping the Bluebirds reach this point including 2018 graduate Robby Gabbard. Listerman also guided Boone County to a region title game in 2004. The Rebels lost 56-42 to Covington Catholic. The head coach of the Colonels that year was his dad in Mike Listerman.

"You have to tell the kids to keep climbing and keep believing in what we're doing," Kevin Listerman said. "I feel bad for the kids that have suffered with me all along this. They don't get to cut the nets down. But those guys are here because of what this means. I'm so blessed to be at this school and be a part of this community that has stayed with us. We're so fortunate."

When Kevin Listerman was a senior at Covington Catholic during the 1994-95 school year, he wrote about becoming a coach. He broke down in tears when his dad read him a bedtime story about how the 1979 Bluebirds led by his godfather and Head Coach Ken Shields won the region championship at Holmes. Listerman played college basketball for Shields at Northern Kentucky University leading the Norse to two NCAA Division II runner-up finishes.

This marks the 13th Region championship in Highlands history. The Bluebirds won four out of five between 1997 and 2001. They finished state runner-up in 1997.

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