|NewCath has won 16 Straight against Bluebirds|
|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands senior Tyler Gulley (center) dunks the ball in the first quarter of the 36th District semifinal game against Newport Central Catholic.|
The Highlands guard knew a big shot stood between the Bluebirds advancing to the 36th District boys basketball championship game or seeing the season end. It didn't come down to that play, but the long shot came up short as the visiting and eight-time defending champion Newport Central Catholic Thoroughbreds (15-11 overall) escaped with a 61-59 district semifinal win over the Bluebirds (13-15).
"At the end of the game when you have an open-floor situation, I like to let the kids play," said Kevin Listerman, Highlands Head Coach. "I thought Sam (Vinson) would be able to get downhill. They did a great job of corralling him. We ended up having to take a long three and it didn't go. But there were so many good things that happened. We did a good job of staying with our game plan. I'm super proud of our guys. If you look at our program from the sixth grade-up, we really have taken some steps forward. I love where we're headed."
The end result saw the Bluebirds left out of the district title game and 9th Region Tournament for the fourth straight year. The Thoroughbreds have won 16 in a row over the Bluebirds and 18 of the last 19 meetings since Highlands last won the district championship in 2008.
But during the 16-game losing streak, this marked the closest the Bluebirds came to beating the Thoroughbreds. The previous 10 meetings saw the Thoroughbreds win by double figures.
The Bluebirds knew they needed big games from their posts in 6-foot-4-inch junior Ben Sisson and senior Tyler Gulley and the duo responded. Sisson had a double-double of 17 points and 12 rebounds with Gulley going for 12 points and five blocked shots. Highlands won the rebounding battle, 29-24.
Starkey and senior guard Carl Schoellman gave Highlands some outside balance. Schoellman made three three-pointers for nine points and Starkey scored eight. The Bluebirds made 22-of-42 shots for 52 percent including 4-of-12 from three-point range for 33 percent and 11-of-16 free throws for 69 percent.
Defensively, Highlands made NewCath senior guard Brennan Hall earn his 19 points on 6-of-15 shooting after he scored 27 on the Bluebirds during the regular season. But NewCath senior forward Brendan Lukens gave the Thoroughbreds a spark down low scoring 24 points.
"We knew Lukens was a really good player," Listerman said. "They did a good job, especially in the second half of getting him the ball inside against our zone. We gave up too much dribble penetration and let him get drop-downs and easy buckets."
The Thoroughbreds made 22-of-49 shots for 45 percent including 3-of-9 from three-point range for 33 percent. But they shot better at the free-throw line making 14-of-17 for 82 percent.
The game swung back and forth in the first quarter. NewCath led 7-3 before Schoellman made his second three-pointer. Gulley landed a dunk then a three-point play to give Highlands a 17-15 advantage after one.
The Bluebirds built their lead to six three times in the second quarter. They used a 6-0 run to go up 33-26 after Gulley hit a jumper. But NewCath sophomore guard Caleb Jefferson put in an offensive rebound and recorded an open-court steal and score with two seconds left to trim the margin to 33-30 at halftime.
NewCath fought back and took the lead in the third quarter. Lukens scored 10 points in that quarter. His last bucket of the quarter gave the Thoroughbreds a 48-41 lead. But Highlands senior guard Robby Gabbard scored with 50.3 seconds left in the quarter to trim the margin to 48-43 entering the fourth quarter.
Highlands junior guard Ryan Leigh left the game because of an injury in that quarter. Schoellman also had to sit out a few minutes because of a small injury.
"They turned up their pressure," Listerman said. "Carl is really our defensive leader. He's the one that gets everybody in the right spot. We struggled those next four, five possessions without him on the floor. Once we got our feet under us, we were fine. We were a little out of our rotation at that point. It took us a minute to get back to what we wanted to do. NewCath made the most of it and they were able to hang on and made a couple plays at the end."
The Bluebirds fell behind 52-45 before Sisson scored and Schoellman hit his third triple with 5:32 left to make it 52-50 NewCath. After Hall made a free throw, Highlands freshman point guard Sam Vinson made two free throws to trim it to 53-52 NewCath with 3:08 remaining.
Sisson gave Highlands its lone lead of the quarter with 2:15 remaining hitting a jumper from the right side. But senior guard Stephen Pangallo banked in a triple with 1:40 remaining to put NewCath back up 56-54.
Highlands had a chance to tie it, but missed two free throws and Paul Kremer made two at the other end to make it 58-54 Thoroughbreds. Vinson then hit a three-pointer from the left corner with 47.6 seconds left to cut it to 58-57.
At the other end, Hall made two free throws with 25.7 seconds left and Starkey responded with an offensive rebound with 13.7 seconds left. Pangallo then made a free throw and Highlands dribbled up-court quickly setting up the final shot.
Highlands graduates six seniors in Gulley, Schoellman, Gabbard, guard Jacob Noe and forwards Griffin Huber and Adam Uhlenbrock. The senior class helped Highlands win 13 games in a season for the first time since the 2010-11 season. Listerman credited the seniors for setting an example with their work ethic in the off-season.
"I've been playing with some of these guys for 12 years now," Gabbard said. "I entered this program as a freshman. We weren't in the right place. We didn't know what we were. We didn't know what we were doing, but I think we have a good idea where we're going. These guys know what to do next year. It's going to be a good team next year. We're going to get a lot more wins."
Highlands has plenty of experience to build on for next season. It starts with Sisson, Starkey, Leigh, Nate Roberts, Jack Hegge and Vinson.
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