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Highlands knocks off St. Henry, advances to 9th Region championship game against Conner

By Don Owen
NKyTribune sports editor

Less than 48 hours after outlasting three-time defending 9th Region champion Covington Catholic in an emotionally draining 61-60 win, St. Henry took the court against Highlands in the tournament semifinals on Wednesday night.

Highlands arrived at the Evans Fieldhouse riding a 15-game winning streak and featuring the 9th Region’s top offense. The high-scoring Bluebirds rolled to a 104-62 victory over Ryle in the opening round at Fort Thomas as five players netted double figures.

Highlands guard Zach Barth elevates for a basket against St. Henry during the 9th Region Tournament semifinals on Wednesday night. (Photo by Dale Dawn)

Earlier this season, St. Henry staged an incredible last-minute rally to stun Highlands by an 82-80 score in Fort Thomas. And on Wednesday night, the Crusaders again fell behind by double figures against the hot-shooting Bluebirds. Could St. Henry repeat that stunning comeback performance from January against Highlands?

Not this time.

Highlands used a balanced scoring attack, built a 14-point lead and then held off a late St. Henry rally for a 74-68 victory. The Bluebirds (25-4) extended their winning streak to 16 games and are one victory away from capturing their first 9th Region championship since 2001.

“We knew they weren’t going to quit,” Highlands head coach Kevin Listerman said of St. Henry. “We just told our kids you got to keep focused and stay in the moment. We did a very good job of that I felt for the most part.

“Our kids are excited we get to play on Friday. But we haven’t accomplished our ultimate goal.”

The Bluebirds forged a 50-36 lead in the third quarter behind the play of Oliver Harris, who netted 10 of his 13 points in that period. Harris scored eight of Highlands’ first 10 points in the third quarter to give his team a 47-36 advantage.

Zach Barth then buried a 3-pointer to extend that lead to 50-36.

St. Henry battled back and cut the deficit to 61-54 on Gabe Ryan’s 3-pointer midway through the fourth quarter. Barth, though, scored three straight baskets to extend the Bluebird lead to 67-54 and extinguish any comeback hopes for the Crusaders.

“Zach Barth made some timely, timely baskets in the second half,” Listerman said.

Sam Vinson (left) challenges St. Henry defender Ryan Butler during the 9th Region Tournament semifinals on Wednesday night. (Photo by Dale Dawn)

“We hung in there, got down by 14 points, brought it back down and had a chance,” St. Henry head coach Dave Faust said. “Then we kind of forced a shot, they got the rebound and then hit their free throws. They’re good. They have excellent shooters and are very hard to defend.”

Sam Vinson scored 20 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and dished out seven assists to lead Highlands. The 6-foot-5 senior guard also converted 10 free throws in 11 attempts.

“There’s a reason he’s a Kentucky Mr. Basketball candidate,” Faust said of Vinson. “We just didn’t have any answers for them. They got too many easy baskets. Early in the game, we let a couple of guys who can flat-out shoot get open looks. And when you only score eight points in the second quarter against a team like Highlands, you’re not going to win too many games.”

St. Henry jumped out to a 7-2 lead early in a back-and-forth first quarter. Highlands countered with a trio of 3-pointers from William Herald and a conventional three-point play by Vinson to even the score at 16-all.

After a Wyatt Vieth basket gave St. Henry a 19-18 lead, Vinson again drove the lane and scored while being fouled. He converted the free throw to give the Bluebirds a 21-19 advantage at the end of the first quarter.

Highlands began the second quarter with an 8-0 run to extend its lead to 29-19. Vinson began the spurt with another conventional three-point play. Barth followed with a breakaway basket and a 3-pointer.

Vinson slammed down a dunk later in the quarter as Highlands built a 33-21 lead. St. Henry ran off six unanswered points to slice the deficit to 33-27, but Luke Muller responded with a basket while being fouled. He made the free throw as Highlands took a 36-27 advantage at intermission.

St. Henry’s Wyatt Vieth (12) drives to the basket while being defended by Zach Barth of Highlands. (Photo by Dale Dawn)

Vieth scored a game-high 22 points for St. Henry, which finished the season with an 18-4 record. Vieth also dished out five assists, collected three steals and blocks two shots.

St. Henry, which started five seniors, was seeking its first 9th Region Tournament championship since 2003. The Crusaders had captured the past two All “A” Classic titles. They also dethroned 9th Region favorite CovCath on Monday night in a first-round classic.

“My kids were ready tonight,” Faust said when asked about the emotional victory over CovCath two nights earlier. “That had nothing to do with tonight’s game.”

Cory Shea added 15 points for St. Henry, while teammate Jude Bessler finished with 14 points and 11 rebounds. The Crusaders shot 38.6 percent from the field and were 6-for-24 from 3-point range.

Barth scored 16 points for Highlands, which shot 47.3 percent from the field. Herald added 13 points, while Muller chipped in 12 points. Harris dished out six assists in addition to scoring 13 points.

“Those guys are so unselfish, and that’s the best part of our team,” Listerman said. “They don’t care who’s shooting, and they don’t care who’s getting the accolades. It’s about winning and doing the right thing at the right time.”

The Bluebirds, one of the state’s top 3-point shooting teams, drained seven triples in 15 attempts. Highlands also limited St. Henry inside force Cody Teten — who scored the winning basket against CovCath — to six points on 3-for-8 shooting from the field.

Landen Hamilton of Conner drives past Dixie Heights defender Ian Snelling during the 9th Region Tournament semifinals. (Photo by Dale Dawn)

“Luke Muller, for a 6-5 guy that’s pretty frail, he did a great job of what we call working early to make it difficult for (Teten) to get position,” Listerman said. “We did a great job of making it tough for them to catch it, especially him.”

Highlands will meet Conner (17-6) in the 9th Region championship game at 7 p.m. Friday. Earlier this season, the Bluebirds pulled out a 78-75 win over the Cougars at Fort Thomas.

Vinson finished with 32 points and 11 rebounds to lead Highlands to that victory against Conner.

•CONNER 71, DIXIE HEIGHTS 54: Landen Hamilton and Spencer Couzins scored 19 points apiece as Conner cruised to a 71-54 win over Dixie Heights in the second 9th Region Tournament semifinal game on Wednesday. Hamilton and Couzins both drained five shots from 3-point range as the Cougars finished 12-for-23 from beyond the arc.

Riley Osterbur added 14 points for Conner, which built a 35-22 halftime lead. The Cougars led by as many as 20 points in the second half and improved to 17-6. Conner is seeking its first 9th Region Tournament championship since 1993.

Jason Summe scored 16 points to lead Dixie Heights, which finished the season with a 21-6 record. Kiernan Geraci added 13 points and eight rebounds for the Colonels, who were 5-for-24 from 3-point range.

Earlier this season, Dixie Heights had posted a 70-50 win at Conner.

Don Owen is sports editor of the Northern Kentucky Tribune. Contact him at don@nkytrib.com and follow him on Twitter at @dontribunesport.

Conner guard Riley Osterbur drives past Dixie Heights defender Billy Wogenstahl during the 9th Region Tournament semifinals. (Photo by Dale Dawn)

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