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Kevin Listerman mentioned the irony of meeting a familiar opponent in the semifinals of the Boys Basketball Sweet 16 Tournament after beating McCracken County in the state quarterfinals Friday.
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It came down to one winning streak extending to earn a chance for a state championship Saturday night against the 5th Region champion Elizabethtown Panthers (22-2) at 8 p.m. back at Rupp Arena in Lexington. Highlands (29-4) extended its winning streak to 20 straight with a 66-50 win over the Tomcats (22-5) ending the Ashland winning streak at 13. Highlands Head Coach Kevin Listerman said he did some math before the game and believes this is the the 1500th win in program history.
"(Ashland Head) Coach (Jason) Mays is a fantastic coach and he gets so much out of his kids," Listerman said. "They know exactly how to turn their stuff - what they're looking for and they did a good job in the first half of knocking down shots. We collapsed a little more than we would have liked. They kicked it and knocked down shots. We knew it was going to be a battle coming in. Matching wits with Coach Mays with the adjustments he was making during the game and the in-game adjustments we were making, it was a fun game to be a part of. We're very fortunate to come out on top."
Ashland did not help off Highlands senior point guard Sam Vinson penetrating the lane and he destroyed the Tomcats making 12-of-21 shots and the only three free throws Highlands took in the game on his way to 27 points. Vinson also had eight rebounds, four assists, three blocked shots and four steals with no turnovers.
Highlands had three starters score in double digits and nearly a fourth. Senior forward Luke Muller made 6-of-9 shots including 3-of-5 from three-point range on his way to 15 points to go with six rebounds and a steal. Junior forward Oliver Harris scored 10 and junior guard Zach Barth scored nine to go with four assists and a blocked shot. Harris had two crucial steals.
The fifth Highlands starter in sophomore guard Will Herald and junior guard Leyton Read combined for five points. But they did their parts defensively on Ashland's perimeter players.
"We had a decision to make," Mays said. "This is why they're in this game (Saturday night). I told our team what makes them difficult to guard is you've got Sam Vinson, who by the way I voted for Mr. Basketball, and then everybody else. Barth is 49 percent from three. (Herald) is 54 percent from three. Luke Muller is 45 percent from three. Everybody else and even Harris is in the mid-40s (from three). (Harris) just doesn't shoot them a lot. Are you going to get beat by the three-ball or are you going to make Vinson beat you? We were in that game because at halftime, they only hit four threes. They're averaging 11 a game. They're number one in attempts and makes in the state and it's not even close. These guys knew the decision and were bought into it. It just didn't work out the way we wanted it to."
Highlands made 29-of-51 shots for 57 percent including 5-of-13 from three-point range for 39 percent. The Bluebirds also had 26 rebounds, 13 assists, seven fouls, nine turnovers, five blocked shots and seven steals. No one on either team fouled out.
Ashland also saw three players score in double digits. Sophomore guard Colin Porter led the way with 15 points. Junior Ethan Sellars followed with 13 and junior Cole Villers scored 12.
The Tomcats made 19-of-52 shots for 37 percent including 9-of-28 three-point tries for 32 percent and 3-of-4 free throws for 75 percent. Ashland also had 28 rebounds, 11 assists, 11 fouls, 14 turnovers, four blocked shots and seven steals.
Highlands built a 56-46 lead after Vinson made a shot and ensuing free throw with 6:23 left in the game. Ashland cut the margin to 56-50 with 5:10 left in the game after two Porter free throws.
"Zach Barth and Leyton Read did a good job on (Porter) in the second half," Vinson said. "When they would go to their ball-screen pick-and-role, we had Luke Muller or I stay off and help with him. We forced him to take some tough shots. He's a great player. But we just tried to make it as difficult as possible for him."
But the Bluebirds finished the game with a 10-0 run to make the final score. Barth scored two buckets in the final 1:27 for Highlands.
"That's a total credit to our kids," Listerman said. "We put (Herald) on Villers and he did an unbelievable job really limiting his touches and making everything difficult for him. For a young man who's typically a scorer to play that role at this stage, I couldn't be more proud of him. He owned it. He took the challenge and did his absolute best. Our other guys could relax a little bit defensively. We were able to clean things up on the boards and really limit their shot selection. I'm so proud of the defense we've played down here and hopefully, we've got one more game like that in us."
Villers scored 32 points in the Highlands win over Ashland in Fort Thomas on Jan. 4 in the season-opener for both teams. Porter and Sellars had 15 each.
"Especially with (the Coronavirus 2019 pandemic), it was a tough way to start the season with two very good teams playing," Herald said. "What showed was the athleticism and just the ability to run up and down the court. Both teams hit a lot of shots. We just played hard and both teams showed how much they improved."
Highlands jumped out to a 5-0 lead in the first quarter. Muller made a three and Barth scored inside. But Ashland came back and led 13-10 with 4:20 left in the first quarter following two Villers triples.
"They started face-guarding me (later in the game)," Villers said. "We just weren't able to get to our spots. We play a spread out offense and it's difficult to catch the ball when you're getting face-guarded and they did a great job of that."
Vinson made three buckets in the final 2:40 of the first quarter. But Sellars made a triple with 20 seconds left and Ashland led 21-17 entering the second quarter.
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Vinson started the run and Barth made a triple to cut the Ashland lead to 32-31 with 2:18 left in the quarter. Muller then made a triple on an assist from Vinson after a Harris steal in the paint at the other end to give Highlands a 34-32 lead with one minute remaining. After a Marcum offensive foul, Highlands held for the last shot. Vinson took the ball past Porter on the right baseline and scored with 4.3 seconds left.
"It just played out like that," Vinson said. "I was driving the whole game and kicking to the open shooters. On the bigger court, there's a lot more space in the lane for me to drive in. A lot of that opened up later in the game and I just got easy buckets out of that."
Sellars scored five straight to open the third quarter giving Ashland a short-lived 37-36 lead with 5:50 to go in the third quarter. But Vinson and Barth buckets gave Highlands the lead for good at 40-37. A Vinson score and Muller triple extended the margin to 45-39 with 3:30 left in the third quarter.
"We struggled to get stops right out of the gate then we settled in and started to get some stops and got some scores," Mays said. "We competed as well as I thought we could have. Late in the (second quarter), we started to get a little disorganized. I wasn't a very good play-caller in that time. We started the (third) quarter with three straight stops, which we call a kill and I said, 'Okay. Here we go.' The story of the last two quarters is their length just bothered us. We just couldn't finish attacking the rim. We're as good as we shoot. It's no secret."
The teams exchanged baskets the rest of the quarter. Vinson scored with 1:30 left giving Highlands a 51-44 advantage going into the fourth quarter. Read scored at the beginning of the fourth quarter to make it 53-44 Bluebirds.
"Our confidence grew every time we got a stop," Listerman said. "We were able to keep the pace and really stretch the lead over the fourth quarter. If you're leading in the state tournament in the third or fourth quarter, you have to like where you are. I don't know that you're ever comfortable with it. But when we have the confidence and the trust in each other, I'll take them any day of the week."
Highlands joined the 1997 and 1924 state runner-up teams as the only three to play in state semifinal games. The 1997 team beat Paintsville in the semifinals, 74-71 in overtime before losing 71-59 to Louisville Eastern. The 1924 team beat Ashland, 37-11 in the state semifinals before losing 15-10 to Lexington in the title game.