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The Highlands Bluebirds boys basketball team needed to swoop in and corral another team nicknamed the Mustangs from western Kentucky to advance to the final day in the Sweet 16 Boys Hoops State Tournament.
After romping past the Columbia Blue and Black Muhlenberg County version from the 3rd Region on Thursday, the Blue and White faced the Crimson, Black and White version from McCracken County of the 1st Region on Friday night. The Bluebirds (28-4 overall) hit enough free throws down the stretch to hold off 23-7 McCracken County, 63-53.
"We have so much respect for McCracken County and those kids are just tough," said Kevin Listerman, Highlands Head Coach. "They answered every shot, every possession. Their coaches are doing a good job with them over there. Unfortunately, somebody had to lose. We talked to our kids at halftime and the timeouts about just being mentally tough - getting stops, getting rebounds, coming up with loose balls. I think we did a much better job of that (in) the second half, especially down the stretch. Part of that was because we had the lead. We're very fortunate. We're very excited that we get to keep playing and I'm just very proud of our kids."
Highlands extended its winning streak to 18 games. The Bluebirds have won three games by 10 points or less in their seven post-season wins.
Highlands faces the 16th Region champion Ashland Blazer Tomcats (22-4) in the state semifinals on Saturday back at Rupp Arena in Lexington at 2 p.m. The Bluebirds beat the Tomcats, 84-75 to open the regular season in Fort Thomas on Jan. 4.
"We're very different teams," Listerman said. "Personnel is personnel. Their best players are still their best players. Our best players are still our best players. You're going to look at it in terms of probably some actions and things that they did. We've grown a ton. It's a little bit of irony that we circle back here. We're very excited to play them again."
The two Highlands senior starters led the way. Forward Luke Muller made 7-of-9 three-point tries and 8-of-10 free throws on his way to a game-high 29 points. Point guard Sam Vinson made 6-of-8 free throws on his way to 15 points to go with eight assists and four steals.
Highlands hit 11-of-15 free throws in the final two minutes, 52 seconds to pull away. McCracken County had cut the margin to 52-50 with 4:10 left in the game. Muller led the way making 6-of-8.
"It's a big deal to all of us (to advance) and the community as well," Muller said. "We know that this hasn't happened in a long time. I think that's fueling us to keep playing hard. I'm just telling the guys out there to stay steady. We got a great team. We really handle ourselves under pressure well and it showed out there."
The Bluebirds made 18-of-35 shots for 51 percent including 11-of-18 from three-point land for 61 percent and 16-of-23 free throws for just below 70 percent. Highlands did not make any field goals in the fourth quarter.
"That's very rare for us," Listerman said. "But we were comfortable with where we were in the game. When you have a player like Sam Vinson who can control the basketball, we felt like we were able to get the floor where wanted it, get the ball to where we wanted it. We had some great looks that didn't go down. When you get to a game like this and the possessions become important, you may not get as may field-goal attempts and we didn't. That is kind of how the game went."
Highlands also had 18 rebounds, 12 assists, 13 fouls, eight turnovers, one blocked shot and six steals. Junior guard Zach Barth scored eight points to go with four rebounds, two assists and a steal.
McCracken County made 20-of-35 shots for 57 percent including 8-of-14 from three-point range for the same percentage. The Mustangs only had seven free-throw attempts making five for 71 percent to go with 19 rebounds, 10 assists, 20 fouls, 14 turnovers, two blocked shots and two steals.
The Mustangs start with senior guard Noah Dumas attacking the paint. Junior Ian Hart scored 15 to lead McCracken County and Dumas scored 14. Junior guard Brant Brower scored 11.
"(Previous experiences) helped us a lot," Barth said. "(Dumas) was a really good guard. Playing against other good guards during the regular season really helped us."
Sophomore guard Will Herald and Muller hit threes to give Highlands a 6-2 lead to start the game. The Bluebirds built it to six three times including a Barth triple with 47 seconds left in the quarter to make it 16-10 Highlands. But sophomore Jack McCune made a three from the left corner with two seconds left to trim the margin to 16-13 after one quarter.
The Bluebirds built another six-point 21-15 lead with 7:05 left in the first half after a Barth steal and score. But the Mustangs tied the game at 21 following two Hart free throws.
"I'm really proud of our guys. These guys have all been so close," said Burlin Brower, McCracken County Head Coach. "I know a lot of things go on and kids move around. But both (Dumas and senior Ian McCune), I used to take them in the truck with me to practice when they were little. Every one of those kids in that locker room, I watched them play little league basketball. I watched them play middle school basketball. Highlands is one of the best shooting teams I've ever coached against. I don't know if I've ever coached against anything close to that. In today's society, it's easy to be a me person. People keep talking about how balanced we are. We're not about all about individual. All these guys constantly do is move the basketball. They play for each other and they're so unselfish. In today's society, that's one of the hardest things you'll find. I can't say enough about how they carry themselves on and off the court."
Vinson answered at the other end scoring at the rim and drawing a foul. Two Muller triples gave Highlands a 29-24 lead with 2:53 left in the game.
With 50 seconds left, Highlands junior forward Cole Kocher put in an offensive rebound to give the Bluebirds a 31-26 halftime advantage. After a defensive stop, the Bluebirds missed the final shot of the first half.
"(Highlands) defended well at the end," Dumas said. "Our shot selection wasn't bad. (But) it's just amazing that we got to have a season. We got to Rupp, won a game, fought hard the next game and came up short."
This marks just the third time in school history the Bluebirds have advanced to the state semifinals. The 1997 team beat Greenup County, 48-45 to advance to the state semifinals and the 1924 team beat Memorial Consolidated, 37-12 in the state quarterfinals. Both teams finished state runners-up.
The Mustangs scored the first six points of the second half taking a 32-31 lead with 5:45 left in the third quarter following a Hart three. But Vinson answered with another score near the rim and Muller made two more threes to increase the Highlands lead to 39-32 with 4:50 left in the quarter.
"We push those guys. I'll be honest. I'm not the easiest guy to play for," Coach Brower said. "Our practices are tough. But these guys don't have a lot of quit in them. There were two, three times this year we've started the game down 14-0 and come back to tie people up."
Highlands extended the margin to 50-38 with 1:40 left in the quarter. Herald made the final field goal of the game on a triple from the right side.
"(Highlands) spreads us out and (Vinson) is just so tough to defend," Ian McCune said. "He's just so quick and athletic that we couldn't help much off him or it would be a wide-open three and they were going to make it."
The Bluebirds led 50-43 entering the fourth quarter. Brant Brower scored with 4:10 left in the game to trim the margin to 52-50 before Highlands pulled away.
"(When) you get to the Elite Eight, teams aren't going away," Listerman said. "They've got toughness. They've been through battles. They're going to find ways. They've got great senior leadership."
The Bluebirds own 13 region championships in school history. The Bluebirds won games in the first round in 1934, 1979 and 1998. But those teams did not advance past the state quarterfinals.
Highlands has lost in the first round seven times in school history. They came in 2001, 1999, 1987, 1986, 1983, 1982 and 1923.