Hot 3-point and free-throw shooting from Luke Muller and the Highlands boys basketball team proved too much for McCracken County to overcome in Friday’s Sweet 16 quarterfinals at Rupp Arena in Lexington.
The Mustangs gave the high-powered Bluebirds all they could handle, shooting 57% from the field and making eight of their 14 3-pointers (57%). They trailed by just two with 4:11 remaining and held Highlands without a field goal in the fourth quarter. But the Bluebirds, who made 61% (11-of-18) of their 3-pointers on the night, sank 11 of their 14 free throws over the final 2:52 in an 11-3 run to close out a 63-53 victory.
“They defended well at the end of the game,” McCracken senior Noah Dumas said of Highlands’ closing stretch. “Our shot selection wasn’t bad, but their defense was pretty good at the end.”
The Mustangs (23-7) led just once in the game — 32-31 courtesy of a 3-pointer from junior Ian Hart with 5:52 left in the third quarter — but showed a lot of fight in hanging with the Bluebirds (28-4) all game long.
“Those guys are tough,” Highlands head coach Kevin Listerman said of McCracken during his post-game press conference.
McCracken (four) and Highlands (five) combined to make nine 3-pointers in the third quarter, three of which came from Muller as part of his seven triples and 29 points. A 9-0 run courtesy of a pair of 3-pointers from senior Sam Vinson and one from sophomore William Herald put Highlands up 50-38 late in the third period, but the Mustangs continued to fight. They closed the quarter on a 5-0 run via a triple from Hart and a basket from Dumas to cut the deficit to seven, 50-43, going into the fourth quarter.
McCracken’s run continued to start the fourth, as Dumas opened with an and-1, and Hart and junior Brant Brower added 2-point baskets as part of a 7-2 spurt to get within two, 52-50, at the 4:11 mark.
“These guys don’t have a lot of quit in them,” McCracken head coach Burlin Brower said. “They find ways to come back, and they don’t try to do it individually. They move the ball and get good shots.”
But they struggled down the stretch, and the Bluebirds — who average 83 points a game — were just too good from the free-throw line to allow the Mustangs any chance at a comeback with the clock ticking under three minutes.
The Mustangs also struggled with turnovers in the game, as they had 14 of them that led to 16 Highlands points in addition to allowing the Bluebirds to hit their average of 11 made 3-point shots.
McCracken senior Ian McCune said defending against Highlands’ many 3-point shooters was “really tough.”
“They spread us out, and it’s really hard to defend their point guard (Vinson),” he said. “He’s so quick and athletic that we couldn’t help much off of him or it would be a wide-open three, and they were going to make it.”
Vinson, a Northern Kentucky signee, finished with 15 points.
McCracken, which trailed 16-13 at the end of the first quarter and 31-26 at halftime, finished with three double-figure scorers in Hart (15 points), Dumas (14) and Brower (11). Sophomore Jack McCune added seven points. Hart and Brower each grabbed a team-high six rebounds, while Ian McCune paced McCracken in assists with four.
After the game, Burlin Brower described Highlands as one of the best shooting teams he’s ever coached against, and he was proud of his team’s effort and performance against such a talented foe.
“I’m really proud of our guys. They came up here and competed with the best of the best,” he said. “I can’t say enough about how these guys carry themselves on and off the court.”
And while the Mustangs fell one win shy of reaching the Final Four, Dumas still described his senior year as “amazing.”
“It’s amazing we got to have a season and got to Rupp and won a game (Thursday’s Sweet 16 game against Bullitt East),” he said. “We fought hard in our last game and just came up short.”
HIGHLANDS 63, McCRACKEN CO. 53
HIGHLANDS (63) — Vinson 4-10 6-8 15, Barth 3-6 1-3 8, Muller 7-10 8-10 29, Harris 1-2 1-2 3, Herald 2-5 0-0 6, Kocher 1-1 0-0 2, Read 0-1 0-0 0, Dunn 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 18-35 16-23 63.
McCRACKEN CO. (53) — Dumas 5-10 2-3 14, Tilford 0-0 0-0 0, Hart 5-9 2-2 15, Brower 5-8 0-0 11, I. McCune 1-4 1-2 3, Blackwell 1-1 0-0 3, J. McCune 3-3 0-0 7. Totals 20-35 5-7 53.
Highlands 16 15 19 13 — 63
McCracken Co. 13 13 17 10 — 53
3-point goals—Highlands 11-18 (Muller 7-9, Herald 2-3, Vinson 1-2, Barth 1-4), McCracken Co. 8-14 (Hart 3-6, Dumas 2-3, Brower 1-1, Blackwell 1-1, J. McCune 1-1, I. McCune 0-2). Fouled Out—Brower. Rebounds—Highlands 18 (Vinson 5), McCracken Co. 19 (Hart, Brower 6). Assists—Highlands 12 (Vinson 8), McCracken Co. 10 (I. McCune 4). Total Fouls—Highlands 13, McCracken Co. 20. Technicals—Barth. A—2,521.