By the end of the night, a new Kentucky state champion will be crowned.
Ranked No. 2 in KSR’s Prep Rankings, the Highlands Bluebirds (29-4) are moving onto the title game of the 2021 KHSAA Boy’s Sweet 16 Tournament after taking down the No. 8 Ashland Blazer Tomcats (22-5) in Rupp Arena on Saturday afternoon by a final score of 66-50. Highlands will face off against the winner of Saturday’s first outing, the Elizabethtown Panthers, later in the evening at 8 p.m.
Sam Vinson, a Northern Kentucky University pledge, was unstoppable for Highlands, finishing with 27 points, eight rebounds, and four assists on 12-21 shooting. Luke Muller contributed 15 points and six rebounds for the Bluebirds while Oliver Harris added 10 points on a 5-8 mark. As a whole, Highlands shot an efficient 57 percent from the floor while holding Ashland to just 37 percent.
It was a hot-shooting affair in the opening stages. Just eight seconds into the contest, Highlands’ Luke Muller canned a 3-pointer and both sides were quickly off to the races. Zachary Barth got in the lane for a layup that gave the Bluebirds a 5-0 lead but Cole Villers had the response and got Ashland on the board.
Sam Vinson would get himself involved with a pretty jump shot that pushed Highlands ahead 7-2, forcing a quick timeout call by Ashland head coach Jason Mays. Out of the break, the Tomcats found its groove. Zander Carter drilled the first triple of the game for Ashland before Villers tied the game up at 7-7 with a tip-in moments later.
Back-to-back 3-pointers from Villers put Ashland in front 13-9 and it wasn’t long before Porter dropped in another outside shot to extend the Tomcats lead to 16-11 with roughly three minutes left in the first period. Vinson would add another jump shot for Highlands to trim the deficit down to just 16-15 but a dunk by Sam Marcum and a triple from Ethan Sellars gave Ashland a 21-17 advantage after eight minutes of action.
End 1st: Ashland – 21 Highlands – 17
Tomcats starting out a red-hot 5-8 from beyond the arc and have seven assists on eight made shots. Cole Villers up to 10 pts for Ashland.
Sam Vinson has 8 pts for Highlands, who is shooting 8-14 from the floor.
— Zack Geoghegan (@ZGeogheganKSR) April 3, 2021
Highlands scored first to start the second quarter thanks to a Muller layup but Ashland wasted no time countering with a 3-pointer from Sellars that extended the Tomcats lead to 25-19. However, the Bluebirds would go on a devastating run to close out the first half. Highlands rattled off a 17-8 stretch in the final seven minutes of the second frame with Vinson adding eight on his own. Not only was the future Norseman excelling on the offensive end, but he also rejected a shot from Ashland center Sean Marcum that sent the Bluebird faithful into a tizzy.
The 3-pointers started to pour in for Highlands, as well, as the Bluebirds eventually took its first lead since the first quarter with about 60 seconds left in the half, 34-32. Another bucket from Vinson with time running low pushed the lead to four points at the intermission, 36-32, with Highlands holding the momentum and closing the second quarter on a 10-0 run.
HALF: Ashland – 32 Highlands – 36
Sam Vinson with a fancy finish right before the buzzer for Highlands. Ashland’s Colin Porter nearly cashes in the 3/4 court shot. pic.twitter.com/iP7XEwD5E5
— Zack Geoghegan (@ZGeogheganKSR) April 3, 2021
Out of the break, Sellars scored first from beyond the arc to trim the Highlands lead down to just a single point, and he would give the Tomcats a 37-36 lead about 90 seconds later. But as he had done throughout the entire first half, Vinson answered on the other end. The senior guard got loose for a layup before Barth drilled another 3-pointer to give the Bluebirds a 40-37 lead.
A pair of free-throws from Ashland’s Sellars made it a one-point contest once again, but Highlands continued to respond. Another layup from Vinson was followed by a deep look from Muller. The Bluebirds controlled a 45-39 advantage with 3:36 remaining in the third and refused to let off the gas from there.
Olivier Harris dropped four straight points for Highlands before Vinson closed out the quarter with a jump shot that put his squad in front 51-44 heading into the final frame.
With just eight minutes to go, Highlands put on the finishing touches to a brilliantly played game. Porter did all he could for Ashland, cutting the lead down to as little as six points at 56-50 with about five minutes left, but Vinson and company were simply too much to handle. The Bluebirds won the fourth period 15-6 en route to a 66-50 victory. Ashland did not score in the final five-plus minutes of the game.
Highlands forced Ashland into 14 total turnovers, which they converted into 13 points. The real advantage came in the paint, where the Bluebirds outscored Ashland 40-18. All-Tournament players Villers and Porter combined to score 27 points, but it came on an 11-27 clip.