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ASHLAND — A fast start to the opening quarter for Ashland proved too much for visiting Highlands on Saturday as the Tomcats rolled to a 75-57 win over the Bluebirds in a boys’ high school basketball game at Anderson Gymnasium.

Highlands led only once, 2-0, in the game before Ashland’s relentless pressure forced the Bluebirds into hurried shots and numerous turnovers.

With its defensive pressure and 3-pointers on the offensive end Ashland, ranked No. 8 in the Associated Press Kentucky high school boys’ basketball poll, used a 16-2 run during the first quarter to build an insurmountable lead.

Although both teams shot a combined 1-for-7 from the floor to begin the contest, Ashland’s defense began a streak of steals followed by points off those miscues that quickly put it on top.

Tomcats’ head coach Jason Mays said his team’s lack of size in the frontcourt means that he must learn to live with surrendering points down low but using its pressure to stop its opponent from finding success behind the arc.

“The story of our team this year is that everybody is saying we’re a good defensive team, but our opponents are shooting like 49 percent on us,” Mays said. “We’re small so people are going to score over us, score inside on us a little bit, but our 3-point defense is one of the best in the state.

“The combination of (3-pointers made versus 3-point defense and forcing turnovers) means that we’re turning you over and our pressure is not letting you make 3-point plays.”

For Ashland that translated into Highland shooting 3-of-9 from behind the arc for the game and 24-of-44 from the field as a team during the contest. Additionally, the Tomcats won the turnover battle 16-3.

Offensively, Cole Villers led all scorers with 23 points for Ashland shooting 7-of-16 from the field for the game with six of those shots being 3-pointers. Meanwhile teammate Colin Porter scored 22 points.

Defensively Villers and Porter combined for nine of their team’s 13 steals in the game.

Highlands exploited its size advantage and stayed even with the Tomcats during the second and third quarters. The Bluebirds trimmed Ashland’s lead to 50-43 late in the third quarter.

Highlands, the defending state champion, managed to outrebound Ashland 31-25 but could not turn that into a lead.

Oliver Harris scored 10 of his team-high 17 points for Highland during the third quarter to give the Bluebirds a shot.

However, Asher Adkins knocked down a triple followed by two free throws by Zander Carter to close out the third quarter and give the Tomcats a 55-43 cushion going into the final period.

From there, Villers and Porter got the Tomcats’ offense going again as the team closed out the game with a 20-14 advantage in the fourth quarter.

Ashland returns to action on Tuesday when it hosts arch-rival Boyd County for a 7:30 p.m. tipoff.

HIGHLANDS 7 18 18 14 — 57: Barth 7-14 1-4 0-0 15, Harris 7-10 1-2 2-3 17, Herald 5-10 1-2 1-1 12, Benke 1-3 0-0 0-0 2, Ryan 3-4 0-0 3-4 9, Duncan 1-2 0-1 0-0 2. Team 24-44 3-9 6-8 57.

ASHLAND 18 20 17 20 — 75: Atkins 0-1 0-1 1-2 1, Sellars 3-9 1-6 1-2 8, Villers 7-16 6-12 3-3 23, Carter 1-5 1-5 3-4 6, Porter 7-15 2-6 6-6 22, Conway 2-6 2-5 0-0 6, Adkins 3-3 3-3 0-0 9. Team 23-55 15-38 14-17 75.

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