|PHOTO: Dale Dawn. Highlands junior forward Oliver Harris (13) goes up for a shot in between two Elizabethtown defenders including senior Jaquais Franklin in the Boys Basketball Sweet 16 championship game Saturday night at Rupp Arena.|
By Michael Graham
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The 9th Region champions faced a hot 5th Region champion Elizabethtown Panther team (22-5) that scorched its first three Sweet 16 State Tournament opponents by an average margin of victory between 21 and 22 points per game. That included a 69-53 win over 7th Region champion Louisville Ballard in the first semifinal game Saturday morning.
Elizabethtown may have had a few more hours of rest before the championship game. But it did not matter as Highlands controlled the game from the outset bringing home the first boys basketball state championship in school history with a 79-60 win over the Panthers. Highlands won 21 straight on its way to the crown.
“It’s beyond description,” said Kevin Listerman, Highlands Head Coach. “I think I said it in the pre-tournament press conference. It’s like going to the moon. You can work, do everything right and there are so many things that are beyond your control to have the opportunity. We just kind of kept our blinders on all week and we just played the team that was in front of us, didn’t worry about the stage. We just went out and did our thing. I’m so proud of these guys for the way our seniors led this team all the way long. We stayed focused. We stayed simple and just made play after play after play. I’m so blessed to be here. I told the kids I played 39.3 seconds in the state tournament as a freshman (at Covington Catholic in 1992 in a first-round loss to Lexington Catholic). To be able to come back as a coach, have them have this unbelievable experience and to just sit back and watch it is absolutely amazing and humbling.”
Highlands broke the record for most three-pointers made in a state tournament. The Bluebirds made 38 over the four games. Louisville Trinity held the previous record with 33 winning the state championship in 2012.
Like the three 9th Region Tournament wins, the Bluebirds put all five starters in double figures. The tournament’s most valuable player and senior point guard Sam Vinson led the way scoring 20 points making 6-of-12 shots and all eight free throws. Vinson also had 14 rebounds for a double-double to go with five assists, three blocked shots and a steal.
“We put in work all offseason and all summer long and that prepared us for this day this whole tournament,” Vinson said. “I think we outworked everyone. I think it showed this tournament.”
All-Tournament team members in Luke Muller and Zach Barth followed scoring 11 and 10 respectively. But sophomore guard Will Herald followed with 17 and junior forward Oliver Harris scored 10 before fouling out. Muller had eight rebounds and Harris added three steals.
Muller said playing golf mentally prepared him for the state tournament. Muller helped the Highlands boys golf team to two region championships in three years and a sixth-place finish at state this past fall.
“Golf is a huge mental game and being out there on the court, I try to be a leader,” Muller said. “I try to get the guys in check. Sam is a big leader out there as well. That is just something that we have to do. Mental toughness is just as important as performing out there shooting the ball and all the skills.”
Highlands made 27-of-59 shots for 46 percent including 10-of-28 from three-point range for 36 percent and 15-of-17 free throws for 88 percent. The Bluebirds also had 34 rebounds, 15 assists, 16 fouls, 10 turnovers, four blocked shots and six steals.
Elizabethtown had shown balance all season. The Panthers put three players in double figures. Senior forward Camden Williams led the way with 17 with senior forward Alandre Murphy and senior guard Kam Sherrard scoring 13 and 11 respectively.
Elizabethtown made 24-of-53 shots for 45 percent including just 3-of-16 from three-point range for 19 percent and 9-of-17 free throws for 53 percent. The Panthers also had 31 rebounds, 13 fouls, 13 assists, 13 turnovers, three blocked shots and six steals.
“We just picked a bad night to have a bad game,” said James Haire, Elizabethtown Head Coach. “Highland had an excellent game. (The Bluebirds) were on fire. They did everything correct. We didn’t finish a lot of shots. I can’t think of anything (Highlands) did wrong. But it happens like that sometimes.”
Highlands missed its first four shots of the game. But the Bluebirds began raining dimes. Camden Williams scored the first bucket of the game for Elizabethtown. But Vinson hit a jumper followed by a Harris score before Muller made a triple with five minutes left in the first quarter to put Highlands up 7-2. The Bluebirds never trailed after the Harris bucket.
After another Williams score, Highlands scored another seven in a row. Vinson started it again and Barth made a triple to put the Bluebirds up 14-4 with 3:21 left in the first quarter. Another Barth triple extended it to double digits at 19-8 with 2:20 left in the quarter.
“A whole lot of things went right, especially early to help us build that lead,” Listerman said. “We were able to maintain it in the second half. A lot of it starts with Sam, Luke and the defensive job that they did. We challenged our players this whole week about rebounding and we did a good job the first half to collect the misses. We did what we typically do, which is make that extra pass and knock down shots. When we get rolling, we’re awfully difficult to handle. In the second half, we played to the clock and that’s typical. We made the plays we needed to make to hold them at bay and finish the game like I wanted us to.”
Elizabethtown did cut the margin to six after a Kam Sherrard score. But Highlands finished the first quarter with two buckets. Herald hit a jumper from the left corner and Harris recorded a steal and hit a jumper in the center to put the Bluebirds up 23-13 after one quarter.
The Bluebirds continued to extend the lead in the second quarter. Junior forward Cole Kocher made two free throws and Read hit a jumper. Following a Williams three from the left wing, Herald made a triple and Read recorded a steal and found Vinson for the lay-up from the right side giving Highlands a 32-16 advantage.
The Panthers did cut it to 11 with two minutes left in the first half. But Highlands finished the half with nine in a row. Read made a triple and Herald made two more including one in the final seconds to put the Bluebirds up 47-26 at halftime.
Highlands scored the first six points of the third quarter. Vinson made two free throws to give the Bluebirds a 53-26 advantage. The Bluebirds led by 24 twice. A Kocher offensive rebound gave Highlands a 66-45 advantage after the third quarter.
The Bluebirds extended the margin back to 75-51 with 4:20 left in the game. Vinson found Muller for the final Highlands bucket of the season with 47.2 seconds left in the game.
Highlands graduates four seniors off this team. Those four are Vinson, Muller, Bryson Cody and Daniel Buchanan. Muller will play golf at Northern Kentucky University next year.
Highlands finished state runner-up in 1997 and 1924. The 1997 team lost 71-59 to Louisville Eastern in the state championship game and the 1924 team lost 15-10 to Lexington.