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Highlands continues quest for state title with 88-60 victory over Muhlenberg County on Thursday

NKyTribune staff

LEXINGTON — A bigger court and the vastly different shooting background in Rupp Arena didn’t slow down the high-scoring offense of Highlands on Thursday.

Neither did the defense of Muhlenberg County.

Luke Muller of Highlands scores a basket against Muhlenberg County in Rupp Arena. (Photo by Dale Dawn)

Highlands connected on 12 shots from 3-point range in 18 attempts and rolled to an 88-60 win over Muhlenberg County at the Sweet 16. Sam Vinson netted 24 of his game-high 31 points in the first half as the Bluebirds won their 18th consecutive game and improved to 27-4.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been that hot in a half before,” said Vinson, who was 5-for-6 from 3-point range in the opening half. “To do that here at Rupp Arena in front of this crowd, it felt amazing.”

Vinson, a 6-foot-5 senior guard, drained six 3-pointers in seven attempts. He also dished out five assists and blocked four shots. The Northern Kentucky University recruit earned most valuable player honors at the 9th Region Tournament last week after leading Highlands to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2001.

Muhlenberg County entered Thursday ranked No. 3 in the state in scoring defense at 43.5 points per contest. By halftime, Highlands owned a 46-30 lead and then used a 25-12 spurt in the third quarter for a 71-42 cushion.

“Your seniors need to step up and play well in big games,” Highlands head coach Kevin Listerman said, noting the play of Vinson and Luke Muller. “We were very fortunate to get the pace of the game the way that we wanted it. I think that really played into everything moving forward.

“The start of the game was critical for us, to jump on them early and establish that pace.”

Highlands shot 62.5 percent from the field and led by as many as 34 points. Muhlenberg County connected on 40 percent from the field and shot 8-for-25 from 3-point range.

Sam Vinson scores against Muhlenberg County. (Photo by Dale Dawn)

Muller added 21 points for Highlands, which shot 57.7 percent from the field in the first half. Muller, who entered the game having drained 107 shots from 3-point range, was 3-for-4 on Thursday from beyond the arc. He also grabbed eight rebounds as Highlands won the battle of the boards by a 35-28 margin.

“We can really stretch the floor against anyone,” Muller said of his team’s ability to shoot from long range. “We might not be the biggest [team], but with shooters everywhere we got confidence in everybody.”

Oliver Harris scored 11 points and grabbed six rebounds for Highlands, while teammate Zach Barth finished with nine points, five rebounds and four assists. The Bluebirds, No. 2 in the state in scoring offense at 83.5 points per game entering Thursday, dished out 17 assists against Muhlenberg County.

Nash Divine led Muhlenberg County (19-2) with 21 points. Divine netted 15 points — all on 3-pointers — in the first half, but the Mustangs were unable to contain Vinson and fell behind 46-30.

Muhlenberg County had won 16 consecutive games, including the 3rd Region championship with a 46-31 triumph over Owensboro Catholic. Asher Carver added 12 points for the Mustangs.

Highlands will meet McCracken County — a 68-56 winner over Bullitt East in another first-round game — Friday at 8 p.m. McCracken County owns a 23-6 record and is the champion of the 1st Region.

Zach Barth (10) elevates for a basket against Muhlenberg County on Thursday. (Photo by Dale Dawn)

Highlands head coach Kevin Listerman celebrates after his team’s 88-60 win on Thursday. (Photo by Dale Dawn)

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