G. Michael Graham Photo. Newport Central Catholic guard Brennan Devoto (23) passes to Zach Pangallo (11) while Highlands' Drew Houliston (25) defends in Tuesday's game. The Thoroughbreds won 48-37 to advance to Thursday's 36th District championship game against either Bellevue or Newport at 7 p.m.
By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
Many felt the 9th Region preseason favorites would again run away with this boys basketball contest.
But the hosts did not let their season end without a fight staying in the game until the end. The Newport Central Catholic Thoroughbreds built a lead behind Michael Bueter’s shooting and held off the host Highlands Bluebirds, 47-38 in the 36th District Semifinals on Tuesday.
NewCath won its 17th straight overall to move to 29-2 and Highlands’ finished the season at 12-16 for a two-game improvement over last year. The Thoroughbreds have won seven in a row in the series including a 59-22 victory in Fort Thomas on Jan. 22.
“That’s a hostile environment,” said Grant Brannen, NewCath head coach. “I told everyone and nobody believed me. It was going to be a tough one. We knew Highlands had a bad game that last time.”
The Bluebirds came into the game playing their best basketball of the season. They finished the regular season with three consecutive wins.
“It was late in the year,” said Mike Flynn, Highlands head coach of the team coming together. “But it’s never too late. Our guys showed tremendous character. (NewCath) is a better basketball team obviously. I thought we outfought them and outworked them.”
NewCath will shoot for its fifth consecutive district championship Thursday at 7 p.m. back at Highlands. The Thoroughbreds face either Newport (19-9) for the third time this year or Bellevue (14-15) for the second time this year. NewCath beat Newport in a regular-season matchup before downing both teams in the All “A” 9th Region Tournament.
“That was a very ugly win,” said Jake Schulte, NewCath post. “We knew they’d come out with nothing to lose. We’re happy we’re back in region this year. Our main goal has been to get to Rupp (Arena for the state tournament) ever since losing in the regional finals last year.”
Michael Bueter’s outside shooting in the first half turned out to be the difference in the game. He made four three-pointers all in that half to lead the Thoroughbreds with 17 points.
“It was huge,” Bueter said. “(Highlands) was packing it in to make it tough to get the ball inside to our bigs. We needed someone to knock down outside shots to get them open. That’s what I was doing.”
Bueter made three triples in a row to give NewCath the lead for good with an 11-0 run to start the second quarter. Nick Seibert started the run with an offensive putback. The Thoroughbreds led 18-9 with 4:12 left in the second quarter.
Late in the game, NewCath made its free throws to pull away. The Thoroughbreds hit 12-of-15 for the game for 80 percent, including 6-of-9 for 67 percent in the fourth quarter.
Drew McDonald made 9-of-10 free throws to lead NewCath on his way to 13 points. The other three starters in Seibert, Jake Schulte and Zach Pangallo scored six points each to round out the Thoroughbred scoring. McDonald also grabbed 14 rebounds for a double-double.
“Give Highlands credit,” Brannen said. “Coach Flynn had a great game plan and took away all our stuff. We missed our first six shots. I don’t care what people say. You have to knock down the outside shot if they’re going to leave you wide open.”
The Bluebirds saw three players reach double-digits. Drew Houliston and Luke Turner led the way with 12 each and Bailey Witte scored 10. Highlands made 4-of-7 free throws for 57 percent.
“We knew Turner and Houliston were the two guys who could shoot,” Brannen said. “They hit some timely three’s.”
Both teams shot just 31 percent from the field. NewCath made 16-of-51 shots including four three-pointers and Highlands made 15-of-49 with five three-pointers. Houliston and Turner made two each and Witte made the other.
“As usual, I wish we could have shot better,” Flynn said. “That was our bugaboo all year. But as far as effort is concerned, I could not be happier.”
Highlands won the rebounding battle against the taller Thoroughbreds, 40-33. Nick True led the Bluebirds with 10 rebounds and Schulte followed McDonald with eight.
But NewCath did reject seven shots to one for Highlands and recorded 12 steals on 20 Bluebird turnovers. The Bluebirds had just five steals on 10 NewCath turnovers. Pangallo recorded five steals for the Thoroughbreds with Bueter and McDonald rejecting two shots each. Turner recorded three steals for Highlands.
The Bluebirds led a couple times in the first quarter. Karl Hinkel had a three-point play with 17 seconds left to put Highlands up 9-7 after the first quarter.
Highlands cut the margin to three at 28-25 late in the third after a Houliston three-pointer. But Bueter and Seibert buckets gave NewCath a 32-25 advantage heading into the fourth quarter. The Bluebirds came no closer than seven in the final quarter.
The Bluebirds graduate four seniors. They are Turner, Witte, Hinkel and Jake Gronotte.