Don't know about the 9th, but the 8th is definitely rebuilding a bit this year. There may be a really good team ultimately represent the region in Rupp, however, every one of the 17 teams have questions that must be answered, from the pre-season favorites (Collins) to Walton-Verona to Oldham County and all the others.
Oldham returns only 1 starter (Christian Harper, who took over a starting role midway through last year), but the other four starters all saw significant action in varsity play at quality time as the Colonels typically rotate 9-10 players throughout the game to keep their high-octane pace going.
There were a lot of keys to this game....
1) Ben Sisson picked up his second foul early in the first period on an offensive move down the baseline. The officials appeared to be conflicted; one called him out of bounds on the drive, the other called him for hooking the defender. In the end, the foul call stood, and Sisson sat the rest of the first half. Oldham twice built the lead to 10 with Sisson out, but the Bluebirds still cut it to five at the half, so coach Listerman had to be a happy camper.
2) Oldham's 10 point lead was the largest for either team all night.
3) Highlands made their move in the third, erasing the Oldham lead as Oldham went cold from the field and the Birds capitalized on drives to the basket. The Birds took a one point lead into the fourth.
4) Oldham came out of the break with an intensity that Highlands just couldn't seem to match. At one point, the Birds had four consecutive possessions with a turnover (and 0 shots). For the game, turnovers ultimately doomed Highlands; my color commentator had them unofficially with 21 turnovers, whereas we had Oldham with just 10. (unofficial)
This game was a stunning display of fast-paced, intense basketball. The officials let them play (some really weird, unexplainable, questionable calls, but both teams suffered from them as the calls were pretty much equal. Both teams had about the same number of fouls called against them.) But the game felt like a region tournament game. For the fans, this was an absolute blast.
Ben Sisson is the real deal. Big, strong, showed the ability to put the ball on the floor and drive, and a nice soft touch with the ball. Somebody's going to get a nice addition at the next level.
Oldham's young sophomore point guard had some problems - the kinds you get with youthful inexperience - but it will help him in the future. Still, he spent a lot of time on the bench, and Oldham played "patchwork fix" at PG. Unfortunately for Highlands, they were unable to take advantage.
Turnovers simply killed Highlands. You can't play a team the caliber of Oldham County - even an Oldham County that is still learning its team chemistry with four new starters - and commit 21 turnovers. Period.
Oldham's 6'5" Christian Harper played a region "player of the year" type of game, scoring 16 points and snagging 12-13 rebounds. He's a human jumping jack and had a handful of clean blocks - he's really improved dramatically in that regard since last year, when he struggled with fouls when blocking shots - and ran the floor well, often guarding a Highland guard out front.
Real impressed with Highlands' ability to find the right offensive player in the half court for drives to the basket. Had the Birds' hit their free throws better, this game might have gone the other way.
In the end, I was impressed by what I saw from two teams whose football players are still rounding into form. Both are unpolished gems, but gems they are. Both will be heard from come region time.
If you're a fan of either team, these are the kind of teams that may take a few losses in December against really rugged schedules, but when the New Year arrives, I think the two teams fans are in for a lot of smiles.