Final Fours in the Sweet Sixteen are euphoric or heartbreaking. Ashland has been on both sides of it through 15 previous appearances.
The Tomcats are 8-7 in those trips, including seven since 1954. Eight others were between 1920 and 1940. The last one was 25 years ago in 1996. But now, here they are again, with a date against Fort Thomas Highlands in Rupp Arena on Saturday.
Here are how these semifinal games have played out and what followed the eight victories (and even one loss).
1920: Ashland 33, Anderson County 33-15. Finals: Henry Clay 56, Ashland 13.
If it seems like we’ve been here before, well, we have. The stakes just happen to be sky-high this time with a spot in the state championship on the line Saturday afternoon when Ashland takes on Fort Thomas Highlands.
Highlands defeated Ashland 84-75 in the season opener in Fort Thomas on Jan. 4. The Tomcats were 8-for-28 from 3-point range and fell behind 18-4. That snapped the 33-game winning streak and put the undefeated season in the rearview mirror.
It was one of the pivot points of the season, according to coach Jason Mays, because it showed the Tomcats this was a new season. The friendly ghosts were gone.
Cole Villers scored 32 in the opener and Ashland fought back to get into the game. It was one of several key games against high-caliber competition that proved to the Tomcats they could play with anyone.
Sam Vinson scored 30 and Highlands was 8-for-19 on 3-pointers in that one.
THREE-FOR-ALL: Ashland was 10 of 17 and Highlands hit 11 of 18 from 3-point range in quarterfinal victories Friday night.
PLAY IT AGAIN: Ashland and Highlands have met only one other time in Sweet 16 history. The Tomcats dropped a 13-11 semifinal decision way back in 1924. That was four years before Ashland’s first boys state championship in 1928.
SWEET 16: This is the 16th time the Tomcats have reached the state semifinals and the first time since the 1996 team made it to the state championship game before falling to Paintsville.
Ashland has been six times since 1961. The Tomcats lost a heartbreaker that year against Ohio County. They fell in 1977 to Louisville Valley in the semifinals to end a 30-win season. The 96 team, of course, won its semifinal game to reach the finals against Paintsville.
The Tomcats also won the semifinal game in 1961 against Wheelwright en route to the state title and then won in 1962 before losing in the state championship game.
Ashland has an 8-7 record in semifinal appearances.
BRINGING THE HEAT: Ashland’s 80-44 victory over Boyle County in the quarterfinals was the biggest margin of victory in Tomcat history in the Sweet 16. The previous high was the 61 Tomcats 77-51 victory over Louisville Seneca.
Friday’s game brought out the mercy rule running clock before the 6-minute mark of the third quarter.
LONE FOOTBALL CHAMP: Ashland’s win over Boyle County also made the Tomcats the lone school still alive in the field that also had a football championship during the school years. Four schools came into the Sweet 16 with that football title already in their hip pocket. But only the Tomcats remain.
LISTEN UP: I listened to Dicky Martin a lot in Friday’s quarterfinals and it was well worth it even though he was ahead of the telecast by a few minutes. There was absolute delight in his voice calling the lopsided victory. He urged – make that begged – Ashland fans to show up Saturday afternoon.
Martin remembered back to 1961 when his father Dick – the VOICE of those Tomcats – called his mother and told her to get Dicky down here because “we’re going to win it.” Dicky was only seven years old but his father understand the importance of winning a state tournament. It hasn’t happened since.
“Please come support these kids,” Martin said Friday. “They’re playing their guts out for you. And I believe we’re going to win it.”
The semifinal game is at 2 p.m.. If you can’t make it down, watch it on nfhsnetwork.com. If you haven’t already subscribed, it’s still worth the $10.99 subscription fee for a month.
No surprises in the opening round of the Sweet Sixteen on Wednesday.
Bowling Green, Elizabethtown, Ballard and Clark County advanced to the quarterfinals. There were some impressive performances from a powerhouse upper bracket.
Ashland plays Knox Central Thursday night at 8 in its opening game. The Tomcats, dripping with basketball tradition, will be going for their 50th Sweet Sixteen victory – already more than anybody else in the state. This is Ashland’s 35th appearance in the Sweet Sixteen, second only to Owensboro’s 40 appearances.
Knox Central is a 3-point favorite over the Tomcats in Dave Cantrall’s Rating the State. Knox, like Ashland, has won three regional championships in a row.
Three may be a key word in this one.
Ashland is one of four schools who won football championships playing in the Sweet Sixteen. Bowling Green, Boyle County and Paintsville are the others.
Hunter Gillum could become the first Tomcat since 1934 to play for a football and basketball state champion. Eleven players currently have that distinction in Ashland history. Those players were members of the 1928 (basketball) and 1928 (football) teams and the 1934 (basketball) and 1934 (football) teams. So it has been 87 years …
The football championships were “claimed” titles with undefeated seasons. Kentucky didn’t start football playoffs until 1959.
The journey for Hunter Gillum to become the 12th member of that elite club starts with defeating Knox Central.
Tomcat-Knox Central connection
Former Ashland Tomcat coaching great Harold Cole, who took four teams to the Sweet Sixteen, finished his coaching career at Knox Central. Cole died in April 2019 at the age of 87.
Ashland has a 3-1 all-time record against Knox Central.
How to watch the game
To watch the game Thursday go to nfhs.com. Cost is $10.99 for a one-month subscription. That will allow you to watch the entire boys and girls state tournaments. But don’t forget to cancel or you will be charged $10.99 in future months.
No. 21 for Tomcat ‘Voice’
Thursday’s broadcast by Dicky Martin on WBVB 97.1-FM will be the 21st TOMCAT game in the Sweet Sixteen that he has called. He has some great memories with semifinal team in 1977, Jeff Tipton’s 41-point game in 1980 quarterfinals, and the 1996 run to the finals among the highlights.
Three regional championships in succession is rare even for the Tomcats, who accomplished the feat for the first time since winning five in a row from 1976-1980 under Paul Patterson (four) and Ernie Simpson.
Other years of at least three in a row: 1969-1971 (Harold Cole), 1960-62 (Bob Wright), 1931-34 (Jim Anderson and Paul Jenkins), and 1924-29 (Jim Anderson). The six in a row is the longest in their storied history.
A prediction …
Swami says Tomcats will prevail 68-63 in the Sweet Sixteen opener.
MOREHEAD – Denied the chance to compete in the Sweet 16 last year because of the coronavirus, many saw Ashland’s 62-58 victory over Rowan County in the 16th Region championship as a day of destiny, a payback for what was taken away from them last March.
How else can you explain a rally from an 11-point deficit in the fourth quarter with your playmaker supreme relegated to being a cheerleader with more than 6 minutes to play?
Improbable? You betcha.
Destiny? Well maybe.
Something else? Read on.
As much as it was easy to feel good for those Tomcats who get their chance to play in the Sweet 16 next week, I still feel for Justin Bradley, Ethan Hudson and Nolan Phillips – three 2020 seniors who had so much to do with Ashland’s 33-0 season – because their destiny ended in limbo. Talk about March Madness, that was the epitome.
Now I’m sure, knowing the three of them, they cheered their guts out on Saturday. Probably nobody wanted the Tomcats to win more than them. But I still feel bad for those young men who were so vital and had a memory for a lifetime taken away because of a virus that has taken so much away from all of us.
It’s good that some of these other key players – Cole Villers, Colin Porter and Ethan Sellars – get their chance to be in the Rupp Arena spotlight. They deserved it last year and they will be able to take a bow next week and maybe finish a job they thought was left unfinished last year. And if you asked any of them today, they would say those three seniors from last year had a lot to do with what happened this season and even Saturday, when all hope looked lost.
Here’s why. They helped establish a new culture with Tomcat basketball. A culture where winning is all that matters on the court, where making the extra pass is better than scoring, where team means everything.
These Tomcats may not have been a mirror image of last year but they were pretty darn close in the things that matter. They love each other, they respect their opponent and they know how to represent their family, school and community with the most class I can ever remember any Tomcat team doing.
It’s not that Ashland had a lot of bad characters, they haven’t. But these kids are setting a standard of excellence on and off the court that hopefully will be duplicated for years to come. And if that happens, there will be more celebrations to come. More regional championships and trips to the state tournament. Success breeds success. They have the blueprint and it’s up to the coaches not only at the high school level but in middle school and below to follow the plan.
Ashland’s players aren’t in the face of their opponents, popping their jerseys or talking smack. They lift a hand out when somebody hits the deck. They give their opponents credit in the newspaper. And they aren’t afraid to share their faith (which I especially like). Good kids make for good experiences for parents, for fans and for a community. Kudos to coach Jason Mays for establishing a culture of excellence that shouldn’t be underestimated.
They are pretty good basketball players too. We’ve all enjoyed watching them compete and their will to win, well, you saw it on display again Saturday. It was an epic and historic comeback, one that I’m sure made Justin Bradley, Ethan Hudson and Nolan Phillips proud.
Knowing these Tomcats, I’m sure they will find a way to honor those three seniors when they take the floor next week against Knox Central. I know because that’s the kind of culture that exists with Ashland basketball these days.
Congratulations guys. You’re doing things right and it shows.