|Highlands Boys Fall to Ohio Opponent|
|PHOTO: G. Michael Graham, Fort Thomas Matters. Highlands senior Will Salmon (25) sets up to take a free throw against Hamilton (Ohio) on Saturday. Salmon scored 12 points in the 76-65 Bluebird loss.|
A second win meant playing for the holiday tournament championship in a 16-team field that featured the state champion, state runner-up, a semifinalist from last season and the team that handed the Bluebirds their lone loss of the season. Highlands accomplished both beating Louisville Butler, 43-30 Saturday afternoon and Simon Kenton, 47-41 in the evening earning the right to play for the Traditional Bank Holiday Classic championship on Sunday at 6:15 p.m. Highlands takes on the Boyd County Lady Lions (9-1) for that crown.
Boyd County advanced to the state semifinals last year before losing 78-59 to eventual state runner-up Louisville Mercy. The Lady Lions (9-1) have won seven in a row since their lone loss to Ashland Blazer, 52-35 on Dec. 1. Senior standout point guard Savannah Wheeler, a Conference USA Marshall University (Huntington, West Virginia) signee, did not play in that game. But she helped Boyd County hand defending 9th Region Ryle (10-1) its first loss of the season in a 71-63 win Saturday in the other semifinal of the winner's bracket.
Solid defensive efforts in both games led to the victories for Highlands. The Bluebirds recorded eight steals off 15 Simon Kenton (5-4) turnovers while yielding just two steals to the Lady Pioneers off 12 turnovers. Highlands led 23-17 at halftime. Junior Piper Macke led Highlands with three steals.
Simon Kenton dropped its first three games before winning five straight coming into the game. The Lady Pioneers graduated several key players off last year's 8th Region champion team. Simon Kenton edged Mercy, 58-57 to make it to the tournament semifinals.
"We did a great job," said Jaime Walz-Richey, Highlands Head Coach. "We did some things defensively and executed it. Then we were able to make some shots on the offensive end."
Highlands senior guard Zoie Barth made 8-of-16 shots including two three-pointers on her way to 22 points. Barth also had three rebounds, three assists and a steal. Sophomore Rory O'Hara followed with nine points. Junior Maggie Hinegardner made a step-back three-pointer to give Highlands some cushion just before halftime.
"Every play counts and we've talked about it," Richey said. "It could just be a simple rebound that you get or keeping it alive on the offensive glass. Those little things are huge. We had a lot of people step up and do the little things we needed. It's not always points."
Highlands made 17-of-41 shots for 42 percent including 3-of-12 three-pointers for 25 percent and 10-of-11 free throws for 91 percent. The Bluebirds also had 21 rebounds and nine fouls.
Simon Kenton made 16-of-39 shots for 41 percent including 6-of-14 three-point shots for 43 percent and 3-of-5 free throws for 60 percent. The Lady Pioneers also had 24 rebounds and 12 fouls. Junior Maggie Jones led Simon Kenton with 13 points.
Highlands defeated Butler (5-3) to earn the evening game. The Bearettes won state championships in 2014 and 2016. They have the same head coach from those teams in Larry Just.
"We're getting our confidence with each game and we're growing closer as a team," Hinegardner said. "This tournament's really good for us because we play a lot of tough teams. The seniors really set a good example for us. It's a learning experience for us every single game. They do a good job of helping us out and talking us through stuff."
The Bluebirds won the rebounding battle, 20-16. Senior Chloe Jansen led the way there with seven rebounds to go with eight points, an assist and steal.
Barth had another big game for the Bluebirds. She made 6-of-12 shots and 4-of-5 free throws on her way to 16 points to go with three rebounds, three assists and four steals. O'Hara followed with 10.
Butler had 12 steals off 16 turnovers compared to 11 steals for Highlands off 18 turnovers. Macke also had four steals for Highlands.
Highlands made 13-of-27 shots for 48 percent including 2-of-10 from three-point range for 65 percent and 15-of-19 free throws for 79 percent. The Bearettes made 12-of-35 shots for 34 percent including 2-of-12 from three-point range for 17 percent and 4-of-6 free throws for 67 percent.
Tiarra East led Butler with seven points. Highlands held 5-foot-9-inch Jasmine Elder to two points. Elder is committed to Indiana State.
The Bluebirds went 2-2 in the same tournament last year. That included a 57-54 loss to Boyd County.
Hamilton (Ohio) 76, Highlands 65:
The Bluebirds (6-3) led the Big Blue (3-3) from Ohio's Greater Miami Conference, 50-46 entering the fourth quarter. But they could not make the plays down the stretch to pull off the home win.
Hamilton made 25-of-52 shots for 48 percent including 9-of-22 three-point shots for 41 percent and all 17 free throws. Highlands made 22-of-42 shots for 52 percent including 4-of-11 three-point tries for 36 percent and 17-of-26 free throws for 65 percent.
Highlands won the rebounding battle, 29-23. The Bluebirds had four players reach double figures led by Ben Sisson's 18 points. Sophomore Sam Vinson scored 14 and senior Tristan Thompson started in place of Ryan Leigh scoring 12 and senior Will Salmon came off the bench to score 12. Leigh was not able to play Saturday.
"We have to guard better plain and simple," said Kevin Listerman, Highlands Head Coach. "We gave up too many three's in the first half, did a much better job in the second half. When they went to their press late, we didn't handle it. It was a very good game. Both teams made runs and they made the last run."
Hamilton saw three players score in double digits. Jaylen Robinson led the way with 26 making all 10 free throws. Kevin Burnet followed with 19 and Brayden Jackson scored 11.
Highlands plays in the 23rd Annual Hilton Sandestin Beach Blowout in the northern Florida Panhandle town of Miramar Beach starting Thursday at 10:30 a.m. The opponent is the Charles Henderson Trojans located in the southern Alabama town of Troy.