First Financial Bancorp of Hamilton, Ohio, plans to enter the Kentucky market by buying Hebron (Ky.) Bancorp for $35.4 million in stock.

First Financial would exchange about 20.4 shares of its stock for each of the 60,000 outstanding shares of Hebron. The acquisition is expected to close in mid-1999.

Stanley N. Pontius, president and chief executive officer of $2.8 billion-asset First Financial, said Hebron's market has high growth potential. Hebron, which is closely held and has $107 million of assets, serves customers in northern Kentucky, near Greater Cincinnati International Airport.

Mr. Pontius said his company, which owns 15 banks in Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana, is in talks to buy other companies in the Kentucky.

Also pending for First Financial is a deal to buy $527 million-asset Sand Ridge Financial Corp., a bank holding company in Highland, Ind., near Chicago.

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