It's a strategy that didn't pay off.

Highlands decided to go small, Mason County did the same.

The strategy backfired as Mason County pulled away with essentially five guards on the court in the third quarter, ending the frame with a 12-0 run on their way to a sixth straight victory, 72-61 over the Bluebirds.

“They emptied whatever you want to call it, to use a football term, they emptied their backfield and went five small and went five guards and we did too, to match it," Royals coach Buddy Biggs said. "My hats off to the kids we put in there, they just had a whale of a third quarter, beat them 18-6 that quarter. It was the first time we had done that all year and it really worked tonight."

The game was not only special in honor of the late Mike Murphy for the US Bank Mike Murphy Classic, devoting so much of his time to Mason County Schools, but the Royals' Leevi Dunaway became the 24th player in school history to clear the 1,000-point marker.

"The guys in the locker room wanted me to score the 1,000th point more than I did. That's what means the most to me," Dunaway said.

Dunaway needed 13 coming into the game, ended up dropping 25 and showcased an all-around game as he added a game-high 12 rebounds to go with five assists and three steals.

“I think I've tried to do to much the past couple of games trying to get it and I spoke with our coaches and they told me to just play my game and it will come, so that's exactly what I did," Dunaway said.

Dunaway hit the 1,000-point mark in the second quarter with a free throw as the game was briefly paused for recognition and Dunaway was presented the game ball by Biggs.

“I'm really happy for him, his family. What's most impressive to me is he's only had 40 career starts. I don't know if that's the fastest, but to me that's really, really impressive," Biggs said. "He's really stepped his game up these last 18 months. If you would have told me at the end of his sophomore year we'd be talking about this here at the end of December, I don't honestly know if I would have believed that. He's put in a ton of work not only on the court, but in the weight room to make himself a better player and now he's seeing the rewards of it."

The senior guard would help ignite the pivotal third quarter run, connecting on a layup before Highlands Jack Hegge answered with a bucket, making it 44-40 Bluebirds before the Royals ended the frame on a 12-0 run, taking a 52-44 lead into the fourth.

"The transition from defense to offense, we played better defense and consequently we were getting more rebounds instead of taking the ball out of the net. We were getting some long rebounds and able to get it out and go," Biggs said.

After Highlands got within seven at 62-55 in the fourth, the Royals closed the door on any comeback attempts with five straight points to extend out to 12 and close out with an 11 point victory.

The Bluebirds were bombing away early. Highlands knocked down nine 3-pointers in the first half as they took a 38-31 lead into halftime, the last a Jacob Noe triple just before the halftime horn.

"That was basically our only point of emphasis at halftime. We had to literally switch our defensive plan," Biggs said.

It worked as Highlands went 1-for-10 in the second half from long range.

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Meanwhile the Royals got points out of just three players in the first half, Dunaway with 14, Jaylen Lofton 11 and Caleb Boyd 6. Lofton would end with 18 and grabbed seven rebounds, Boyd had 10 and Jeremiah Jones was big off the bench with 11 points and also pulled down six rebounds.

Highlands was led by Noe's 12 points, all coming in the first half, Jack Hegge had 11 and Nate Roberts chipped in 10 as the Bluebirds dropped to 4-5 on the year, snapping a four-game winning streak.

Mason County returns to action Friday night in a highly anticipated matchup with Pendleton County, a contest that pits two of the top teams in the region.

"They have a great team, have been prepping all week for us while we've had to grind out games over Dixie Heights and Highlands tonight. It should be a big crowd, should be fun tomorrow night and a great atmosphere. We're looking forward to it," Biggs said.

It also pits former coach with former player, Biggs taking on Pendleton's Keaton Belcher, a player under Biggs at Pendleton before going on to play in college at Belmont.

"I love Keaton, he knows that. We talk a lot and every time we hang up the phone with one another we tell each other we love one another. He was very special to me as a coach and it was an honor to coach him. He's become a great young man and a really good coach," Biggs said.

Tipoff for that will follow the Mason County-Nicholas County girls' game, scheduled for a 6:30 p.m. start.

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