The Highlands High School basketball team won its first KHSAA Boys’ Sweet 16 on Saturday. It was the Bluebirds’ seconds appearance in the final game.
Highlands’ first trip to the championship round occurred in 1997, the first of three years the Bluebirds would represent the 9th Region at the Sweet 16. Jared Lorenzen and Derek Smith, who would go on to football stardom at the University of Kentucky, were major players on those Highlands teams who were named to the All-Tournament teams in 1997 and 1998.
Highlands lost to Eastern in the 1997 finals but upset defending champion Paintsville in the semifinal round earlier that Saturday. Below we have republished four game stories covering that first tournament run.
BLUEBIRDS OUST DEFENDING CHAMPS
By Mike Fields
One team’s elation is another team’s despair, and that picture was never in sharper focus than after Highlands upended defending state champion Paintsville 74-71 in overtime in the Sweet Sixteen semifinals yesterday afternoon in Rupp Arena.
Sophomore Derek Smith was the hero for Highlands. With the Bluebirds trailing 65-62 and only 10 seconds left in regulation, Eric Glaser went to the foul line for one and the bonus. He made the first to make it 65-63. Smith, a 6-foot-6, 220-pounder, then told Glaser to miss the second free throw on purpose.
“I told him if he just could, to put the second one up a little hard and I’d go up and get it,” Smith said.
That’s exactly what happened. Glaser’s free throw slid off the front of the rim and Smith was there for the put-back to tie the game.
Paintsville still had 6.7 seconds to get off a winning shot, but Kyle Adams’ 22-footer was too strong.
In overtime, the Tigers trailed 72-70 with 42 seconds left. After running the clock down, Todd Tackett drove the lane looking for a three-point play. He got the foul but not the basket, and went to the line for two free throws with eight seconds left. But he missed the first attempt and made the second.
Highlands’ Dave Schulkers’ free throws with 2.7 seconds left wrapped up the Bluebirds’ 28th consecutive victory and a date with Eastern (34-2) six hours later.
For Highlands, a school best known for its 12 state football titles, reaching the state basketball finals brought unbridled joy. The Bluebirds’ players danced around the floor hugging each other, and Coach John Messmer said he was “looking forward to the opportunity to be in the greatest championship game in the nation” last night against Eastern.
For Paintsville, a tiny school from the mountains that had dreamt of back-to-back titles, the loss was devastating. The Tigers had victory in their grasp but let it slip away. After the final horn, junior center J.R. VanHoose, who had fouled out with 21 seconds left in regulation, sat unmoving on the bench for several minutes before a KHSAA official came and led him off the court.
Twenty minutes later, senior Josh McKenzie came to the post-game interviews with his right hand bandaged. He had smashed it against a wall in a moment of angry disappointment.
“Upsets do happen,” McKenzie said. “We were the victims of an upset.”
Paintsville appeared to be on its way to the finals when, after trailing for most of the game, it burst into a 56-48 lead with five minutes left. But after a Highlands timeout, the Bluebirds ran off six consecutive points to make things tight down the stretch.
The final minute of regulation was as tense as it gets.
After Todd Tackett hit a pair of free throws to give Paintsville a 64-58 lead, Randy Stegman hit a 10-footer for Highlands to make it 64-60 with 59 seconds left.
Paintsville then broke the Bluebirds’ full-court pressure, but McKenzie couldn’t finish off a fast-break when he missed a contested layup. On Highlands’ possession, VanHoose picked up his fifth foul and went to the bench.
Eric Glaser hit both free throws for the Bluebirds, cutting the deficit to 64-62 with 21 seconds remaining.
Tackett was fouled quickly, and made one of two foul shots to nudge the lead to three points. The Tigers regained possession with 11 seconds left when Stegman was whistled for walking as he tried to launch a three-point shot.
Then came the first of two crucial plays.
Paintsville inbounded the ball near midcourt, with McKenzie passing to Tackett, who was immediately double-teamed. In the bustling for the ball, Tackett had it knocked away by Glaser, and Tackett was called for a foul.
“Josh threw the ball to me and it looked like I got tackled,” Tackett said grimly. “I guess I fouled him.”
Paintsville Coach Bill Mike Runyon was livid on the sidelines, screaming that Tackett had been the one fouled.
That set up Smith’s timely rebound on Glaser’s intentionally missed free throw.
Late Friday night, after Highlands had beaten Greenup County in the quarterfinals, Smith had said “I think Paintsville is in for a surprise.”
Messmer wondered at the time about such confidence, but after Smith’s 25 points and 10 rebounds yesterday, the coach said, “I guess we did surprise them today.”
Asked to sum up the game, Runyon said cryptically, “We played hard, got breaks down the stretch, that’s about all I can say.”
Later, Runyon was more reflective on what his Tigers had accomplished, winning a school-record 33 games and coming so close to reaching the state finals again.
“I told them not to hang their heads,” he said. “These seniors have won 106 games in four years, and that’s not too shabby.”
BASKETBALL TOURNEY A ROLLER COASTER RIDE FOR TEAMS’ EMOTIONS
By Lee Mueller
Fort Thomas Highlands’ best moment in the Boys State Basketball Tournament in 73 years yesterday was spoiled just eight hours later.
The Bluebirds’ overtime win over defending champion Paintsville in yesterday morning’s semifinal was deflated last night, when Highlands lost the state championship to Louisville Eastern, 71-59, in Rupp Arena.
The last time the Bluebirds got close to a championship crown was in 1924, when the team was a runner-up.
In Kentucky, on title day in the Sweet Sixteen, it can be a short trip between the thrill of victory and, you know, defeat.
It is the one thing that separates Kentucky’s tournament from all the rest.
Two other states (Delaware and Hawaii) still permit all their schools to compete for a one true championship, regardless of size.
But Kentucky may be the only state that requires its semifinal winners to play two games in eight hours, officials said.
It is a unique circumstance that creates other unique circumstances.
There was almost no time – six hours, perhaps – for yesterday’s semifinal winners to celebrate and enjoy a notable achievement.
Two big games became anticlimactic on the day they were played.
Instead of reading headlines on the front of this morning’s paper about victories by Highlands and Eastern over Paintsville and Warren East, respectively, you will find the results of yesterday’s semifinal round buried in today’s sports section.
So instead of going home or back to a hotel to savor yesterday morning’s wins, fans from Fort Thomas and Louisville went looking for a place to have lunch, shop or perhaps watch NCAA Tournament games on television until last night’s 8:10 p.m. tipoff.
Covington lawyer Doug Jones, husband of Fort Thomas Independent school board chairwoman Cindy Jones, celebrated with fans near the entrance to Lexington Center.
“I’m pumped,” he said, whacking a friend on the shoulder. “Man, am I pumped.”
Unlike Barbara Fritsche, the mother of Bluebird cheerleader Anne Fritsche, who went back to the team motel to celebrate, Jones and his friends went to lunch.
Players, of course, had fewer options.
Eastern star Antwan Taylor headed back to the Greenleaf Inn on Nicholasville Road with his teammates. “I’m going to rest up and ice my leg up for tonight’s game,” he said.
George and Maggie Ryan of Louisville and their two daughters emerged from Rupp Arena into a brisk March wind and then stopped on Main Street to watch Lexington’s St. Patrick’s Day parade.
Like Jones, who commuted 180 miles each day for Highlands’ games, the Ryans commuted 160 miles roundtrip from Louisville for each game, said Maggie Ryan, a teacher at Eastern.
Even without a motel, a day-trip to Lexington on Wednesday cost the family about $50, she said.
Playing the last two rounds of the tournament in one day had saved him some money, George Ryan said.
“For the fans, it’s good; for the players it’s bad.”
Louis Stout, commissioner of the Kentucky High School Athletic Association, said his board at times has considered changing the Sweet Sixteen’s format to play the championship game on Sunday.
Continuing the tournament for another day probably would not cost the KHSAA any more than the weekly rental of $92,000 it already pays, Stout said.
“The only problem with the Sunday format is that it makes some people spend another night in Lexington,” he said. “The way some hotel rates are here, a lot of people can’t afford to do that.”
Holding the championship on Sunday afternoon also could pose problems for parents and students returning to work or school on Monday, Stout said.
“Just ask the fans if they’d like to spend another night in Lexington. You know what their answer would be. It’s unfair to fans.”
Maggie Ryan agreed, sort of.
Playing the last two rounds of the state tournament in one day probably saves everybody money, she said.
But for a shot at the title, she added, “we could come back tomorrow if we needed to.”
DEFENSE DOES IT AS EASTERN TAKES STATE TITLE
By Mark Story
In December, they captivated the imagination of the state with an offensive explosion.
But, last night, with the state title on the line, it was defense that made them champions.
Using relentless full-court pressure, Eastern harried and harassed leg-weary Highlands into submission and the Eagles won the first state title in school history with a 71-59 win before 12,275 in Rupp Arena.
Forty years after the school’s only other state finals appearance ended with a heartbreaking loss to Lafayette, the 7th Region champions made sure this trip would end successfully.
Antwan Taylor led three Eagles in double figures with 18 points. Ashley Olinger and Jermaine Taylor both added 15, and State Tournament MVP Trent Coward had eight points, 10 rebounds and seven assists.
“We are taking the title back to Louisville!” Coward exulted amid post-game celebrants. “Back to Louisville where it belongs!”
The loss snapped Highlands’ win streak at 28, denied the Bluebirds (34-4) in their bid to be the first school to win football and basketball state titles in the same school year and kept them from becoming the second 9th Region team to earn a state championship. Simon Kenton did the trick in 1981.
Eastern (35-2) first burst upon the consciousness of Kentucky when it hung 156 points on Doss in a 156-70 season-opening rout.
But it was defense that returned the state championship to Jefferson County for the sixth time in 10 years.
“It really did,” said Eastern Coach Bryce Hibbard, who recorded his 100th career victory and the state title in the same night. “It is an old cliche: Offense wins games, but defense wins championships.
“We told our kids the key to getting the ring was getting after them.”
A team blessed with a plethora of quick, bouncy athletes in the 6-foot to 6-4 range, Eastern attacks relentlessly on defense at all times.
But Hibbard thought it would be especially important last night because Highlands was a big, physical team that had faced an arduous route to the state finals.
The Bluebirds’ starting lineup went 6-6 230 pounds, 6-6 200, 6-4 220, 6-4 180 and 6-0 170.
To get to the finals, Highlands defeated Greenup County in a punishing game that was more like rugby than basketball in Friday night’s late game. Then they came back with an overtime win over defending state champ Paintsville yesterday morning.
“I know even back when I played, for bigger guys, you get tired and your legs get heavy, you get a step slow, and you just can’t do what you normally do,” Hibbard said. “I think that is what happened to them.
“You could see their minds telling them what to do, but their bodies just couldn’t do it.”
Highlands fought gamely for as long as it could. Down as many as 12 in the third quarter, the Bluebirds pulled within two, 53-51, 40 seconds into the fourth quarter when 6-6 senior center Eric Glaser scored on a follow shot, was fouled and converted the free throw.
But Eastern simply turned up the defensive pressure, forced three Highlands turnovers and went on a 12-2 run.
Jermaine Taylor had five points and Olinger four in the game-deciding run.
For the game, the Eagles forced 17 Highlands turnovers and scored 21 points off them. For the tournament, Eastern forced 101 turnovers and scored 127 of their 296 points from the miscues.
Highlands’ cause was not helped when Derek Smith, its 6-6 sophomore star, fouled out with 5:01 left in the game.
Smith finished with 14 points and eight rebounds. Glaser was brilliant for Highlands, scoring 24 points and snaring 10 rebounds. He single-handedly kept the Bluebirds in the game by scoring 16 of his points after halftime.
“He was a warrior,” Highlands Coach John Messmer said of Glaser. “He fought his heart out. There is nothing else you can say about him.”
Smith, whose strong State Tournament performance will likely propel him to statewide prominence, said Eastern’s pressure simply took the sap out of Highlands.
“We just didn’t have it in our legs,” he said. “Their defense, they were slapping the ball all night long and they had great leapers and blockers. They wore us down.”
Might the outcome have been different if Highlands could have had a day of rest before facing Eastern?
“I think so,” said Highlands guard Jared Lorenzen. “But they didn’t have one, either. They played this morning, too. It is not an excuse for us. They just wore us down.”
Eastern, the first 7th Region team to win the state title since Ballard in 1988, finished the season with 22 straight wins. The only in-state team to defeat the Eagles was PRP in the Louisville Invitational semifinals.
“Coach told us all year that our defense would make us champions,” Coward said.
It turns out, truer words were never spoken.
EASTERN’S CLOSENESS, EMOTION HIDE JUST BENEATH ITS SWAGGER
By Mike Fields
Here they were on the Rupp Arena sidelines, hugging each other and crying their eyes out, caught up in the moment of the Sweet Sixteen championship.
Eastern’s Eagles were an emotional wreck – and this was before tip-off of their State Tournament title game with Highlands last night.
“I was the one who got it started,” confessed senior Trent Coward. “The other guys were sitting on the bench, and I went over to each of ‘em, hugged ‘em and said a little something, like how this was our last game together and I was going to miss them.
“A few minutes later, when that song came on, the tears started falling.”
That song was “My Old Kentucky Home,” and there was hardly a dry eye among Eastern’s starting five. Ashley Olinger was a mess. He kept biting his lip and glancing upward, trying unsuccessfully to regain his composure. Antwan Taylor held a stoic pose, but admitted later that his heart was breaking. Robert Taylor gave in to the moment, closed his eyes and simply sobbed. And Jermaine Taylor, the only junior in the group, kept glancing at his older teammates and got choked up himself.
Off to the side, Eastern Coach Bryce Hibbard was wondering what the heck was going on.
“I was kind of concerned,” he said, “about whether we’d get our heads back by the time the game started.”
So this was Big Bad Eastern, the swaggering, fast-breaking, in-your-face defensive swarm from Louisville that tore through this basketball season with a hip-hop style that some fans mistook as showboating.
Scratch that surface, however, and you would have seen a bunch of kids who have been playing hoops together for 10 years and just couldn’t contain their glee at how far they had come.
“I know a lot of people in the stands didn’t like the way our kids acted on the court, but they’re just enthusiastic and competitive,” Hibbard said. “And, gosh darn it, they don’t hide it well.”
Isn’t it a fact that when families get together, they’re usually a little more free with their feelings? This Eastern team didn’t just talk about being a family, they are one. Antwan and Robert Taylor are brothers, and so are their cousins, brothers Jermaine and Ramone Taylor. And on another branch of this family tree, Trent Coward is James Coward’s uncle.
The whole lot of them bonded years ago – back when they were playing Church League ball together for Jefferson Street Baptist, and in middle school for the Crosby Cavaliers.
“That’s why it was so emotional tonight,” Olinger said. “We’re usually hyped up before games, but tonight we all started thinking about how long we’ve been together and how this was our last time as a team.”
Coward, whose leadership won him Sweet Sixteen MVP honors as much as his statistics, agreed.
“We all started playing together so long ago, and even back then we talked about winning the state championship someday,” he said. “Before the game we all realized this was the end of what we’d been working for all these years. That’s why we were crying.”
Unfortunately for Highlands, the Eagles wiped away their tears and put on their game faces before tip-off. And for the next two hours they relied on their superior quickness and defense to neutralize Highlands’ superior strength and shooting.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Eastern blew the game open like it had so many times before this season, with its suffocating pressure. The Eagles wound up winning, 71-59, their 34th victory in 36 games.
To some fans, the Eagles’ victory was just another example of big-city dominance – this is the sixth time in 10 years a Louisville team has claimed the championship.
To be sure, there were probably better storylines in this 80th State Tournament, such as Paintsville trying for a repeat, Harrison County striving to win one for the flood victims back home, or Highlands hoping to complete the first football-basketball double in the same school year.
But Eastern had its own appeal, and that was its togetherness. There was not a superstar in the bunch, not a first-team All-Stater or a sure-fire Division I signee on the roster.
“What we had,” Jermaine Taylor said, “was we were really a family. A lot of teams talk about having that kind of closeness. We lived it.”
The father figure in this picture was Hibbard, who came to Eastern two years ago from Reidland, a school in Paducah that would never be confused as a basketball power.
The 34-year-old Hoosier native fit in nicely at Eastern. His low-key style was a perfect complement to his team’s flashy personality.
“Having players that God blessed with talent, my job wasn’t so much X’s and O’s, but to talk to them about playing roles and being a team,” Hibbard said. “That really wasn’t hard to do because they’ve been playing together for so long.”
Hibbard then looked across the floor and saw a couple of the Taylors in a group hug with Coward.
“Look at ‘em,” he said, smiling. “They’re a family.”