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Don Owen: A football powerhouse for decades, Highlands is now King of the Bluegrass in hoops

The football powerhouse of years past is now the King of the Bluegrass in basketball. Fort Thomas is officially the hoops capital of Kentucky.

That’s as a result of Highlands capturing the state championship on Saturday night with a 79-60 triumph over Elizabethtown. The Bluebirds (30-4) hoisted the trophy in basketball for the first time in school history after their uncanny run through the Sweet 16.

On the gridiron, Highlands has won 23 state championships. Basketball? The Bluebirds had won a total of nine 9th Region titles before this season. They also won a pair of 10th Region championships in the 1920s before moving to the 9th Region.

Highlands head coach Kevin Listerman reacts during the final moments as the Bluebirds capture the state championship in Rupp Arena. (KHSAA photo)

But never a state championship in hoops. Not with legendary head coach Ken Shields on the sidelines in the 1970s and 1980s. Not with Derek Smith and Jared Lorenzen in the lineup in the 1990s. Highlands was very good, but state championships were always associated with football in Fort Thomas.

That all changed Saturday night in Rupp Arena.

“It’s beyond description,” Highlands head coach Kevin Listerman said of winning the state championship. “I think I said in the pre-tournament press conference, ‘It’s like going to the Moon.’ You can work and work and do everything right. There are so many things beyond your control to have the opportunity.

“We just kind of kept our blinders on all week. We just played the team that was in front of us. We didn’t worry about the stage. We just went out and did our thing. I am so proud of these guys for the way that our seniors led this team all year long. We stayed focused, we stayed simple and just made play after play after play.”

Sam Vinson demonstrated his talents to a statewide audience this week in Lexington, capping it with 20 points, 14 rebounds and five assists against Elizabethtown. The 6-foot-5 senior guard earned most valuable player honors at the Sweet 16 and left no doubt who should be this year’s Kentucky Mr. Basketball.

“I’m going to be biased here, but I think he’s the best player in the state,” Listerman said of Vinson. “I think this week he got the opportunity to showcase it. He does it in so many ways. He does it scoring. He does it rebounding. He does it with assists.

Sam Vinson soars above the Elizabethtown defense for a basket during Highlands’ 79-60 win. (KHSAA photo)

“And he’s so humble about it. He’s about his teammates. When they get rolling, he finds them.”

Sophomore guard William Herald buried four 3-pointers in the first half as the Bluebirds sprinted to a 47-26 lead. Highlands drained nine treys before halftime and led by as many as 27 points in the second half.

Herald finished with 17 points and was 5-for-12 beyond the arc. The Bluebirds limited Elizabethtown (22-3) to just 3-for-16 shooting from 3-point range and controlled tempo the entire evening.

“Highlands had an excellent game. They were on fire,” Elizabethtown head coach James Haire said. “They did everything correctly.”

A moment later, Haire added, “I can’t think of anything (Highlands) did wrong.”

Luke Muller, an accomplished golfer by day and a 3-point specialist at night, added 11 points. Muller also grabbed eight rebounds, dished out three assists and was named to the all-tournament team. The 6-foot-5 Muller will attend Northern Kentucky University in the fall and play golf.

Highlands junior guard Zach Barth finished with 10 points and also earned all-tournament honors. Oliver Harris scored 10 points and collected three steals for the Bluebirds, who ended the season with 21 consecutive victories.

Football season is still a bit more than four months away, but the folks who follow Highlands sports are no doubt ecstatic tonight. After all, Fort Thomas is officially the hoops capital of Kentucky.

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

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