|Wildcats pull away in fourth quarter|
|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands senior Bryce Traylor (14) puts up a shot in the 36th District semifinals Wednesday at Dayton. Traylor scored 13 points in the 73-50 Bluebird loss to Newport.|
But unfortunately, the Highlands Bluebirds (12-17 overall) could not bring any magic from that stretch into the last couple games of the season and carry it into the postseason. The second-seeded Bluebirds lost their last four games as a result including a 73-50 defeat to the third-seeded Newport Wildcats (15-15) Wednesday in the 36th District semifinals.
"We did a lot of good things throughout the year," said Kevin Listerman, Highlands Head Coach. "The biggest thing we have to learn is how to finish stronger. Our young kids did a lot of good things. It's a process so we have to stick with the process and continue to take strides. It's a tough thing. We're trying to get better every day. Our kids put forward a good effort. We ran into a team that was just hungrier, out-executed, out-coached and out-played us."
For the fourth time in five years, Newport and Newport Central Catholic will represent the district in the 9th Region Tournament at Northern Kentucky University's BB&T Arena. NewCath (19-12) has won the last eight district tournaments and won the 9th Region crown last year on its way to the Final Four of the state tournament at Rupp Arena in Lexington. Highlands last made the region tournament in 2014 and won its last district crown in 2008.
Highlands scored the first bucket of the game when Ryan Greene drove to the basket and hit a lay-up from the right side. But Newport reeled off 20 in a row to go up 20-2 after one and never looked back.
"We had a couple good looks," Listerman said. "They didn't go. Newport got out in transition and finished. They just did a great job of bottling things up. To loosen up a zone, you have to hit some shots. We didn't hit any early and got behind. We had a nice run there before halftime and the third quarter and just didn't have enough in the tank to complete the comeback."
The Bluebirds did not hit another field goal until senior Bryce Traylor hit a triple with 6:36 left in the second quarter. Highlands did answer with a 7-0 run in the second quarter before finishing with two buckets. Kyle Finfrock hit a jumper before feeding junior Griffin Huber for a score. Highlands trailed 28-17 at halftime.
Newport extended the margin to 15 in the third quarter before Highlands brought it into single digits. Carl Schoellman made a three-pointer with 1:40 left in the quarter to trim the margin to 38-32. The Bluebirds trailed just 42-36 entering the fourth quarter.
But the Wildcats started the fourth quarter strong with two buckets before Greene hit two free throws to make it 46-38 Newport with 6:51 left in the game. Newport then finished the game with a 10-0 run.
Highlands made 21-of-54 shots for 39 percent compared to 28-of-45 for 62 percent for Newport. The Wildcats also hit all 14 free throws with the Bluebirds making just 4-of-10 for 40 percent.
Newport won the rebounding battle, 34-20. Sophomore center Tahj Harding led the Wildcats with a double-double of 18 points and 11 rebounds with junior MeKell Burries recording 18 points and eight rebounds. Junior Najae Williams added 13 with Donnie Miller scoring 10 and Najee Willams had eight.
Traylor scored 13 in his final game for Highlands and sophomore Ben Sisson scored 10. Highlands graduates Finfrock, Traylor, Greene, Luke LaFrange, Brent Angel and Morgan Race. Listerman thanked them for their great effort on a daily basis. The Bluebirds won 12 games for the first time since the 2012-13 season.
"Kyle has been our biggest weapon, our biggest asset all year," Listerman said. "We tried to establish him early. They did a good job of taking him away. In a game like this, if the first couple shots go down, you tend to relax and play better. That's what Newport did."
Highlands will build around returning starters Braden Posey and Jacob Noe next season. Other key returning players include Sisson, Nate Roberts, Schoellman and Alex Starkey.