By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
This marks the last year of the blind draw in the 36th District basketball tournament at least until the schools vote on it next year.
That’s unless the Kentucky High School Athletic Association steps forward to put an end to that. For those wondering, the baseball and softball teams will be seeded in the spring like the volleyball teams were in the fall.
Like I said a few weeks ago, it is too bad because one of the top five teams in the 9th Region will not be playing in it next week on the girls side. Then on the boys side, the best team faces arguably the third-best team in the district instead of the second and third meeting in the semifinals like it would be if the teams were seeded.
This means that there will be a lot of excitement in the semifinal game Tuesday between Highlands (22-7) and Newport Central Catholic (20-9) as neither team wants its season to end.
The Bluebirds may have the edge because they have the size to disrupt the Thoroughbreds. Highlands used that size to get back into the game on Jan. 4 before NewCath won 56-54. The Bluebirds pressured the Thoroughbreds and caused turnovers to tie the game at 53 with 49.3 seconds left and erase a 51-40 deficit with 4:06 remaining.
The Bluebirds have won six in a row and 16-of-19 since starting the year 6-4 facing some tough competition. They knocked off 8th Region contenders Walton-Verona and Simon Kenton (24-5) to conclude the season.
Ther domination starts with the Twin Towers of 6-0 Leah Schaefer and 5-11 Jesse “Dirt” Daley. Schaefer averages 11.2 points and 6.5 rebounds a game with Daley averaging 10.7 points and 5.2 rebounds a contest.
But the Bluebirds have more than just them. Freshman guard Brianna Adler has emerged to score an average of 8.9 points per game. Alex Combs, Haley Coffey, Emilie Parton, Vanessa Fisse and McKenzie Leigh have had big scoring games this season. Balanced scoring will again be key if Highlands wants to make the region tournament.
Senior guard Ava Abner has managed to stay healthy this season. Her leadership has been a big key. Abner also seems to have found her confidence shooting the ball. She made a critical three-pointer against Walton-Verona. That could take pressure off Schaefer and Daley because teams can’t help off her.
The key for Highlands is to avoid the four-minute lapses in games. That let Simon Kenton come back in the fourth quarter Thursday and could cost the Bluebirds in the tournament.
On the other side, things looked bleak for NewCath (20-9) a week ago. The Thoroughbreds lost five in a row starting with a runner-up finish to Owensboro Catholic in the All “A” Championship game before beating Ryle and Conner to conclude the regular season.
Junior Nikki Kiernan has been as good as advertised averaging 18.1 points and 10.7 rebounds a game. Teammate Alexus Mayes averages 10.7 points and 4.8 rebounds.
The key for the Thoroughbreds is also balance. They can advance in the postseason if they have balance. Stephanie Lewis, Michaela Ware and Ansley Davenport among others have made big shots for NewCath during the season.
NewCath likes to slow things down and pound the ball into Kiernan and Mayes. The Thoroughbreds get in trouble when they don’t make outside shots because it allows defenses to collapse on Kiernan and Mayes. If the Thoroughbreds receive balanced scoring, they could win their ninth straight over the big rivals and play for a fifth consecutive district title.
The Thoroughbreds have won three region crowns since 2003. On the other side, Highlands is searching for its first region crown since 2001. Game time is 6 p.m. Tuesday.
On the other side of the bracket, Dayton takes on Bellevue on Monday and the winner meets Newport in the semifinals Wednesday. The championship game is Friday at 7 p.m.
The Thoroughbreds (28-2) had the best regular season in school history and finished with the most wins in the state. They enter the postseason on a 16-game winning streak.
That included the second All “A” championship in school history. Their only two losses came in January to defending state champion Louisville Trinity and Covington Catholic.
NewCath dominated Highlands, 59-22 on Jan. 22 in Fort Thomas. The Thoroughbreds have won six straight in the series and four consecutive district titles.
NewCath’s five starters average at least 7.3 points a contest. That lineup has three players at 6-5 or taller in Drew McDonald, Jake Schulte and Nick Seibert making it difficult for teams to match up with them and Highlands is no different. When teams collapse on them, Michael Bueter and Zach Pangallo make critical three-pointers.
The Thoroughbred bench has also been key. Ben Weyer, Brennan DeVoto and Colin Dupont have had big moments this season for NewCath.
Expect the Bluebirds to spread things out and try to attack off the dribble with Drew Houliston and Luke Turner because that has where NewCath has struggled some this season. Houliston averages 12.5 points per game and Turner averages 10. Turner scored a combined 45 in recent Highlands wins over Scott and Beechwood.
For Highlands to pull the upset, they’ll need big nights from Houliston, Turner and probably two other players. Likely candidates for that are Nick True, Jake Gronotte, Parker Harris or even seniors Bailey Witte and Karl Hinkel. That could be a tall order for a team that has struggled to shoot the ball this season.
The teams face off Tuesday at 7:45 p.m. The winner will most likely meet Newport (19-8) for the district title on Thursday at 7 p.m.
The Thoroughbreds won both meetings against the Wildcats and the Wildcats beat the Bluebirds in the regular season matchup. Brothers JaSean and JaQuan Short lead Newport with 16.5 and 11.8 points per game respectively.