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’61 Tomcats missed perfection but not greatness

Ashland was one game from a perfect season in 1961.

Those Tomcats, still considered one of the greatest teams in Sweet 16 history, will celebrate a 60th anniversary next March.

It was an amazing team with future college stars all around, including Rupp’s Runt Larry Conley, who was a junior on that Tomcat team who helped take them back to the state finals in 1962. He was a stud, an all-around player with a high basketball IQ and a determination to win that inside him like fire. He could be summed up in one word: winner.

But he wasn’t alone. It was a team of stars: Harold Sergent (Morehead), Gene Smith (Cincinnati), Bob Hilton (West Point) and Steve Cram (LSU). Dale Sexton, Larry Fairchild and Jerry Daniel completed the top eight.

Email mainrod@windstream.net to order a copy of Teamwork.

Taskmaster coach Bob Wright was the architect of an Ashland team that finished 36-1 with that one blemish. They were so close to perfection.

Just how dominant? Only one of the 36 victories was less than double figures – 63-59 over Maysville in a January home game – and 20 of the wins came with margins of 20 or more.

By contract, so far the 30-0 Tomcats of 2019-2020 had eight games of less than 10-point margin and six of those by less than five, including 66-65 over Mason County and 57-54 over West Carter on a 60-foot bomb at the buzzer. Forty percent (12) of their wins have come by 20 or more.

The 1961 Tomcats rattled off 21 victories to begin the season including clobbering favored and top-ranked Louisville Seneca 79-50 in the championship game of the Ashland Invitational Tournament. A crowd of 1,561 watched the game that was played in what is now Alumni Gym on Lexington Avenue.

Can you even imagine? The gymnasium seated only 800 so that announced total seems a little inflated. But from what those who say they saw the game reflect, there was hardly room to breathe. Bill Lynch said he and his brother, Bobby, went to the AIT with his father who found a seat. They were relegated to the top of the bleachers, leaning against those red-hot radiated heaters.

With everybody stuffed inside, they would open the large windows in the top of the gym and let cool winter air flow down. It had to be a sight to behold!

Seneca was ranked No. 1 in the UPI (United Press International) and the Tomcats were ranked No. 2. It was supposed to be a battle to the end but turned into a runaway.

Conley scored 28, a season-high for him, but more importantly fouled out George Unseld and others by using a shot fake that Dean Church, a former Tomcat before him, had taught him. It was an up-and-under move after the shot fake and Unseld bit on it every time.

Seneca was stunned and mad. They would get another crack at the Tomcats in the Sweet 16.

The AIT also included Wheelwright, the eventual 15th Region champions, and Ashland hammered them in the semifinals 79-62 as Sergent scored 28 this time around.

Wheelwright, like Seneca, would get a rematch with the Tomcats in the state tournament.

Ashland basketball was the talk of town (sound familiar?) and rolling along with a 21-0 record. They looked unbeatable and were maybe feeling a little too good about themselves.

On a cold February night in Morehead, the Tomcats felt the sting of defeat. Lexington Lafayette won 59-58. It was shocking to watch the Lafayette fans storm the floor like they’d won the state championship. The perfect season was over.

Coach Wright, some say, allowed the Tomcats to lose. He didn’t substitute much and even left Sexton, who was sulking before the game, out of the game completely. Sexton had decided he’d go to the end of the bench before the game and when Wright needed him, he could just come and get him. But he never did. Sexton said he learned his lesson, too, and never sat at the end of the bench again.

Conley fouled out and then Smith, which is when momentum shifted. Ashland was leading 52-47 at the time. The Tomcats scored only once in five possessions over the last 2½ minutes, a one-hander by Cram with 1:25 remaining that put them ahead 58-57. Lafayette scored with under a minute to play for a 59-58 lead and Ashland missed a hurried jumper at the end. Jerry Daniel rebounded the miss and laid it back in but it was clearly after the buzzer. The unthinkable had happened.

The Generals won because they were able to handle Ashland’s devastating zone trap and because the Tomcats were uncharacteristically off their game.

Wright told me during an interview for the book Teamwork, “We just didn’t play. Seventeen-year-olds get overconfident. Sometimes, as a coach, you let things happen because you have to learn instead of me telling them. What they learned was much better than me telling them.”

Ashland was shocked by the defeat and many of them cried all the way home from Morehead. But the Tomcats also circled the wagons and said it would never happen again.

Wright said the loss was good for the team, that “we might have lost a game that really meant something” down the road. “In all probability, that would have happened. I don’t know if I allowed (the loss) or not.”

Ashland poured it on in the next four games prior to the postseason winning by margins of 33, 13, 40 and 18.

The 64th District was much the same with wins of 34, 38 and 37. Then they scored 95, 97 and 90 in the three regional tournament victories. In the semifinals against Grayson they outrebounded the Yellowjackets by an astounding 87-21 during a 97-49 victory. Ashland defeated Clark County 90-73 in the championship as Conley collected 27 points and 23 rebounds in a remarkable performance.

It was more double-figure wins in the Sweet 16 with margins of 17 (Covington Grant), 26 (rematch with Seneca), 11 (rematch with Wheelwright) and then 69-50 over Lexington Dunbar in the championship game.

The stomped on the gas pedal after the loss to Lafayette, leaving every opponent in their wake, wiping away the bitter taste of defeat by bringing home the state championship trophy in one of the most dominating performances in Sweet 16 history.

By Mark Maynard

Managing editor of Kentucky Today, the digital newspaper of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, since July 2017. Worked 42 years for The Daily Independent in Ashland, Kentucky, the last 12 as managing editor and editor and the previous 30 before that in the sports department, including 17 years as sports editor. I have been in the business since 1975 with more than 75 writing awards from the Kentucky Press Association. I have also have written eight books, used to run fast but now look more like I have a piano on my back. President of Amy For Africa, a faith-based Christian ministry serving Uganda. I'm a husband to Beth and father to Stephen and Sally, grandfather to Brooks and human to Opie!

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