Saturday, January 7, 2017
Huge District Seed Win
The Highlands Bluebirds basketball team has learned how to do that better this year and it paid off in a number of ways Saturday with its biggest win of the season. Host Highlands (6-9 overall) welcomed the Newport Wildcats (8-7) to town to open the 36th District and came away with a huge 76-71 victory.
"It's a big, big step for us to get a regular season district win against Newport," said Kevin Listerman, Highlands Head Coach. "To see our kids really execute down the stretch was fantastic. I keep talking to the kids about process and about growing and getting better every day. To see the results is a huge thing for us mentally, especially as we go into the regular season district play."
Highlands knew Newport would try to speed up the game with full and half-court run-and-jump traps teams have employed against the Bluebirds all season. But the trust the Bluebirds showed in its teammates doing their parts to break it and in the game plan put together by the coaches paved the way for the victory. Highlands handled the pressure better and made its free throws down the stretch unlike other games this year to hold on for the win.
The win equaled the win total in district seeding action in each of the past two years. That meant a four seed in the district tournament. Highlands has beaten Dayton in each of the past two seasons to open the district tournament before seeing its season end against top-seeded Newport Central Catholic in the semifinals. Newport dropped to 0-2 in district play.
Newport and eight-time defending district champion NewCath have represented the 36th District in the 9th Region Tournament in each of the past two years and three of the previous four. Highlands last beat Newport, 75-64 in the district semifinals in 2014 on its way to its last appearance in the 9th Region Tournament. This marked the first win over the Wildcats during the regular season since a 60-44 victory in Fort Thomas on Jan. 27, 2011.
Highlands turned the ball over just 10 times against the Newport pressure yielding four steals compared to seven Wildcat turnovers on one Bluebird steal. Highlands did a good job keeping the eyes up-court, finding open teammates or dribbling out of it then either attacking the rim in transition or setting up the half-court offense.
When Highlands ran its offense, good things happened with its size advantage. Highlands 6-foot-5-inch senior post Kyle Finfrock did his usual damage making all 10 free-throw attempts on his way to 22 points and nine rebounds. He also had two assists and a blocked shot.
But Finfrock had help in the paint in 6-3 sophomore Ben Sisson. Sisson made 7-of-14 shots on his way to a season-high 16 points, six rebounds, an assist and two blocked shots. Finfrock took a few passes in the paint then found Sisson on the block for the score when Newport's defense converged on him.
"We have a lot of big guys so we can give teams problems on the boards," Sisson said. "It makes it frustrating for them to box all of us out. When we keep getting it inside, they have to keep fouling us and they get in foul trouble. It works out pretty well."
Of the 12 Bluebirds that saw action, eight scored. Junior 6-2 forward Griffin Huber followed Finfrock and Sisson with 11 points making 7-of-11 free throws for his season-high. Junior point guard Braden Posey had eight points, six rebounds and four assists.
But even if they did not score, they contributed in some fashion. Senior forward Morgan Race gave Finfrock and Sisson some rest and allowed the Bluebirds to stay big, Listerman said. Junior Carl Schoellman and senior Bradley Greene scored six points each handling the guard duties while Posey had to sit with foul trouble. Highlands outscored Newport, 28-11 in points off the bench.
"We had to keep the ball under control, make sure we used ball-fakes and find way around the defense and find open teammates," Race said of facing the Newport pressure. "You just have to focus, run our stuff and make sure we didn't have turnovers because that's what usually kills us. Experience does help because you know what you're doing against that type of defense."
Newport tried to use its quickness offensively and landed three players in double figures. Donnie Miller led the way with 20 points with McKell Burries and Mahki McGuire followed with 16 and 12 respectively. Highlands also used its size defensively to contest shots.
"I was supposed to guard (Burries)," Huber said. "We looked at him as their best player. He can shoot from anywhere so he's very hard to guard. I try to play a good defensive role on their best player and do what I can to help the team."
But when Newport missed, Highlands cleaned things up on the boards. The Bluebirds had 44 rebounds to 39 for the Wildcats. Center Tahj Harding had eight points and eight rebounds before fouling out for Newport. Burries, Miller and Anthony Harmon followed with seven each.
"Up and down the line, we were fantastic," Listerman said. "(Finfrock, Huber and Sisson) did a great job of going to war on the glass. We talked about it halftime that it was going to be won on the backboards. Our guards (also) went back up and picked up a couple more."
Both teams made 75 percent of their free throws. But Highlands made the most of its opportunities with the lead making 27-of-36 compared to 9-of-12 for Newport. The Wildcats had three players foul out committing 29 total compared to 15 for Highlands.
Newport made 28-of-68 shots for 41 percent including 6-of-23 from three-point range for 26 percent. The hosts hit 22-of-57 shots for 39 percent including 5-of-12 three-point tries for 42 percent.
Highlands built a six-point lead three times in the first quarter going up 20-14 entering the second quarter. Newport came back to tie it in the second quarter. But Sisson hit a jumper and Finfrock hit a three-point play to put the Bluebirds up 29-26 with 3:14 left in the half before a Schoellman three-pointer made it 32-26 with 2:05 left. Highlands led 32-31 at halftime.
Highlands built the lead back to six when Huber made a three-point play. But Newport took the lead at 42-41 before Finfrock converted another three-point play. He hit another one minutes later to put Highlands back up 47-46. Sisson and Finfrock then scored in the final minute to give Highlands a 51-46 advantage entering the fourth quarter.
Newport began fouling with under four minutes left in the game. The Wildcats cut the margin to four with about a 45 seconds left before Highlands pulled away.
Highlands improved to 3-3 in 9th Region action with the win. The Bluebirds continue 9th Region play Tuesday against Conner (7-6). Game time is 7:30 p.m. in Fort Thomas.