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Muller pours in 29 points, Highlands pulls out 63-53 win over McCracken County in state quarterfinals

NKyTribune staff

LEXINGTON — Opposing coaches might believe that containing Sam Vinson is a certain way of beating Highlands.

Think again. And meet Luke Muller, the state’s most prolific long-range shooter whose clutch performance enabled Highlands to hold off McCracken County on Friday night at Rupp Arena.

Muller drained seven 3-pointers and finished with a game-high 29 points as Highlands posted a 63-53 win over McCracken County in the state quarterfinals. Muller scored 17 points in the second half — including 8-for-10 shooting at the free-throw line — as the Bluebirds extended their winning streak to 19 games.

Luke Muller (left) of Highlands defends against McCracken County’s Noah Dumas in the state quarterfinals at Rupp Arena on Friday night. (KHSAA photo)

Highlands finished 11-for-18 from 3-point range and improved to 28-4. Vinson added 15 points, eight assists and five rebounds for the Bluebirds, who used a game-clinching 9-0 run in the fourth quarter to secure the win.

“We have so much for respect for McCracken County,” Highlands head coach Kevin Listerman said. “Those kids are just tough. They answered every shot, every possession. Coach (Burlin Brower) is doing a great job with them over there. Unfortunately somebody had to lose tonight.

“We talked to our kids at halftime and in timeouts about 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.”

Muller netted 12 points in the first half — all on long-range treys — as Highlands held a 31-26 lead at the break. Vinson, who averages more than 22 points per game, scored just one basket and converted two free throws in the opening half. The 6-foot-5 senior, though, dished out six assists before intermission.

Highlands junior guard Zach Barth scored eight points in the first half as Highlands shot 55 percent from the field. McCracken County, however, shot 62.5 percent from the field during the opening 16 minutes to keep the game close.

Zach Barth draws a foul while driving to the basket on Friday night in Rupp Arena. (KHSAA photo)

Vinson scored 11 points in the second half, including a pair of free throws with 2:52 remaining to extend the Highlands lead to 54-50. After a McCracken County miss, Muller pulled in the rebound and was fouled. He converted a pair of free throws to give the Bluebirds a 56-50 cushion with 2:12 left on the clock, and Highlands coasted into the semifinals.

Muller has now connected on 117 shots from 3-point range this season. Highlands has made 345 triples — the most in the state.

Ian Hart scored 15 points to lead McCracken County, which closed the season with a 23-7 record. The Mustangs shot 57.1 percent from the field and were 8-for-14 from 3-point range. McCracken County committed 14 turnovers and Highlands converted the miscues into 16 points.

“Highlands is one of the best shooting teams I’ve ever coached against,” McCracken County head coach Burlin Brower said.

Noah Dumas added 14 points for McCracken County, which captured the 1st Region championship to advance to the Sweet 16.

Highlands faces Ashland Paul Blazer in the semifinals Saturday at 2 p.m. The Tomcats rolled to an 80-44 win over Boyle County in the quarterfinals on Friday.

Highlands and Ashland Paul Blazer met in the season-opening game on Jan. 4 in Fort Thomas, and the Bluebirds posted an 84-75 victory. The Tomcats (22-4) have won 13 straight games going into Saturday’s showdown with Highlands.

In the other semifinal contest, Louisville Ballard (21-2) takes on Elizabethtown (21-2) at 11 a.m. The state championship game is scheduled for 8 p.m. Saturday.

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