|Bluebird Quickness Too Much for Mustangs|
|PHOTO: Dale Dawn. Highlands junior Zach Barth (10) goes up for a score in the first round of the Sweet 16 Boys Basketball State Tournament on Thursday.|
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The 9th Region champion Bluebirds (27-4 overall) had not won 18 straight since the 2002-2003 36th District Tournament championship team did it. The Bluebirds scored the game's first bucket in the first minute and cruised to a 88-60 victory over the 3rd Region champion Muhlenberg County Mustangs (19-2).
"It's neat that the kids have done that. We don't talk about (the winning) streak," said Kevin Listerman, Highlands Head Coach. "We just know that we want to go out and play really well. We talk about trusting each other and trusting our process. We live with whatever the results come of that."
The Bluebirds play in the state quarterfinals Friday at 8 p.m. The opponent will be the 1st Round champion McCracken County Mustangs (23-6).
The Mustangs came into the game on a 16-game winning streak and allowing an average of between 43 and 44 points per game. But Muhlenberg County had not played the schedule Highlands did. Highlands beat 16th Region champion Ashland Blazer and 8th Region champion Oldham County. Muhlenberg County had games wiped out by Coronavirus 2019 precautions against 4th Region champion Bowling Green and 2nd Region champion University Heights.
"Going in, we knew this was going to be a very difficult challenge," said Kyle Eades, Muhlenberg County Head Coach. "The only time we've gotten to see Highlands is on tape. The tape doesn't really do it justice compared to what we saw out there."
Highlands made 30-of-48 shots for 63 percent including 12-of-18 three-point tries for 67 percent and 16-of-23 free throws for just under 70 percent. The Bluebirds had 35 rebounds, 17 assists, nine fouls, 10 turnovers, five blocked shots and three steals.
Entering the state tournament, Highlands led the state with 740 three-point attempted and made with 322. The 43.5 made percentage ranked fourth in the state.
"That's a lot more credit to the players," Listerman said. "When you have shooters, they have to shoot and they have to know that they have the green light. We've spent a lot of time talking about taking quality three-point shots. That's a credit to our kids with the way they share the basketball. To have the confidence we have in each other is something special."
Highlands senior point guard Sam Vinson led the way with 31 points making 10-of-18 shots including 6-of-7 three-point tries and 5-of-6 free throws to go with eight rebounds, five assists, four blocked shots, two steals, one slam dunk and no turnovers.
The Bluebirds did not see all five starters score in double digits like they did in the three 9th Region Tournament wins. But they were close. Senior forward Luke Muller scored 21 making 5-of-6 shots including 3-of-4 triples and 8-of-9 free throws to go with eight rebounds and two assists. Junior forward Oliver Harris added 11 points to go with six rebounds and three assists.
"It starts with (Vinson and Muller). Your seniors have to step up and play well in big games," Listerman said. "I thought Sam did a great job taking what they gave us early and knocked a couple shots down. When we saw the ball go through, you could tell our kids were relaxed. We're very fortunate to get the pace of the game the way we wanted it and I think that played into everything moving forward."
The other two Highlands starters in junior guard Zach Barth and sophomore guard Will Herald scored nine and eight respectively. Barth had four assists and a blocked shot with Herald recording seven rebounds.
Muhlenberg County senior guards Noah Divine and Cole Vincent came into the game averaging 16.5 and 12 points per game. Divine scored 21. But Highlands held Vincent to just five points. Senior forward Asher Carver tried to pick up some of the slack scoring 12.
The Mustangs made 24-of-60 shots for 40 percent including 8-of-25 from three-point range for 32 percent and just 4-of-10 free throws for 40 percent. Muhlenberg County also had 28 rebounds, 10 assists, 16 fouls, eight turnovers, no blocked shots and seven steals.
The Bluebirds scored the game's first seven points. Muller started the scoring with a lay-up and Vinson made a triple from the top of the key before hitting a lay-up forcing Muhlenberg County to call a timeout.
"(Vinson) is just such a versatile player," Divine said. "He's one of those players you can't stop from scoring. We tried to contain him. (It) didn't work out. He's a heck of a player."
The Mustangs cut the margin to four twice. But Highlands finished the quarter with a 13-2 run aided by a Mustang technical foul.
Highlands extended the margin to as many as 17 points twice in the second quarter. Vinson made two free throws to give the Bluebirds a 46-30 halftime lead. Vinson scored 24 points on five triples in the first half.
"I don't think I've ever been that hot in a half before," Vinson said. "But to do it here at Rupp Arena in front of this crowd, it felt amazing. The energy from our crowd, students and our bench, it just fueled me to do more."
Divine scored 20 seconds into the third quarter. But the Bluebirds scored the next 12 points to go up 58-32 with five minutes left in the third on a Muller triple. The spacing at Rupp Arena worked to the advantage of the Bluebirds.
"We knew going into the game it was going to be a big deal," Muller said of the spacing. "Everyone on the court can shoot from everywhere. We can really stretch the floor against everyone. We might not be the biggest. But with shooters everywhere, we have confidence in everybody to knock down shots."
The lead hit 30 at 69-39 with 31.4 seconds left in the quarter when Harris hit a jumper. Two Vinson free throws put Highlands up 71-42 entering the fourth quarter.
Muhlenberg County did trim the margin to 75-50 in the fourth quarter. But the Bluebirds scored the game's next nine points to go up 84-52 following a senior Bryson Cody score. Vinson slammed one home off the backboard on an assist from junior guard Leyton Read with 4:34 left in the game.
That 2002-2003 team beat Covington Catholic, 80-64 in the region quarterfinals at Ryle. But Simon Kenton beat the Bluebirds, 54-46 in the region semifinals.
The last loss for the Bluebirds came 67-63 to Beechwood in Fort Thomas on Feb. 12. Highlands won the first 14 games to start last season.
"We've been on a role recently," Vinson said. "We went into film after the Beechwood game and we picked out shots we needed to take and passed a little more to take great shots. The spacing led to a lot of driving and kicks. That's what we've been doing recently."
Highlands won four 9th Region crowns in five years between 1997 and 2001. The Bluebirds finished state runner-up in 1997.
Highlands last won a state tournament game Wednesday, March 18, 1998 by a 66-49 count over Graves County in the first round. But the 1998 Bluebirds lost 72-67 to eventual state champion Scott County in the quarterfinals two days. The 1999 and 2001 region championship teams lost to Henderson County and Russellville in the first round respectively.