(This is a computer simulation matching great Ashland Tomcat teams of the past against each other. All game results are computer-generated but the quotes and enhanced play-by-play are on me.)
ASHLAND, Ky. – It took a champion to take down a champion.
In a battle of two of the most beloved teams in Ashland basketball history, the 1961 state champion Tomcats outlasted the undefeated 2020 Tomcats, 77-74, Tuesday night.
The game is one in a series of matchups between great Tomcat teams of the past that will be played out in the coming days. It was the easy choice as the game most wanted to see, and it didn’t disappoint.
The 61-Tomcats used their length to keep the 20-Tomcats uncomfortable from behind the perimeter. The 20-Cats were only 6 of 25 on 3-pointers. Several rimmed out but 61-Ashland’s long-armed defenders played a role in disrupting the bombing 20- Tomcats, too.
Larry Conley collected 22 points, 11 rebounds and four assists while Harold Sergent added 13 points and eight assists in command performances for 61. Gene Smith, the 6-foot-6 center, was another tough matchup inside, muscling his way to 12 points and five rebounds. Bob Hilton had nine points and five rebounds.
Cole Villers had a near perfect shooting performance with 25 points. He was 10 of 12 from the field and made all five free throws. But the 3-point shooting that the 20 Tomcats dominated opponents with all season was off the mark.
“That’s a great defensive team,” said 20-Ashland coach Jason Mays. “They were long and they were physical, too. It’s a tough matchup for us, or anybody else for that matter. We had our chances at the end though, but couldn’t get the 3-ball to fall for us. Ethan (Sellars) had a great look from the corner with under five seconds to go. That shot was down, man, and then it spun out. I’ll take getting that shot every time.”
Back-to-back triples from Ethan Hudson and Sellars gave the 20- Tomcats their last lead at 68-67 with 4:34 remaining. Villers hit from outside with 2:01 to play to tie the game at 74 but 20 Ashland failed to score the rest of the way.
Steve Cram drove inside for the go-ahead basket and his only field goal, spinning his way between Villers and Nolan Phillips to make it 76-74. The 20-Tomcats misfired from 3-point range on its last three attempts of the game, with the last attempt – a corner three from Sellars – circling the rim three times before kicking out with Conley rebounding. He was immediately fouled and sank one of two free throws to set the final margin.
“Let me tell you, those 20-Tomcats simply won’t give up,” said 61- coach Bob Wright. “I love the spirit of that team. When we went up 11 on them early in the second quarter, I thought that was it. But give them credit for fighting back. We had the better athletes but, boy, they sure had heart.”
The 20-Tomcats trailed 24-13 after a putback from Conley two minutes into the second quarter. But the 20-Tomcats came roaring back and the teams were tied 37-37 at halftime.
“We couldn’t keep Conley off the boards,” Mays said. “It’s something we knew was going to be a problem but how do you contain a guy like that? He’s the best all-around player I’ve ever coached against. We tried everybody on him.”
Sergent was a magician with the basketball, zipping passes to teammates from a variety of angles. He made several dazzling passes at the end of fastbreaks after the 61-Tomcats back-tipped rebounds to him.
“Man, can he ever pass the ball,” said 20-Tomcat point guard Colin Porter of Sergent. “It was an honor to play against him. I can see how this team won 36 games. They were great … but I’d love to play them again.”
Porter held his own with nine points and three assists. Hudson scored 12 while Phillips and Justin Bradley had nine apiece.
“That Porter kid is only a freshman?” Sergent asked. “Holy geez, look out for him in the next few years.”
Ashland’s 1961 team finished 36-1 and is regarded as one of the greatest teams in Sweet 16 history. All five starters received Division I scholarships: Steve Cram (LSU), Gene Smith (Cincinnati), Harold Sergent (Morehead), Bob Hilton (West Point) and Larry Conley (Kentucky). Coach: Bob Wright. Finish: State champions.
Ashland’s 2020 team went 33-0 and didn’t get to play in the Sweet 16 because of the coronavirus. The five starters were tremendous passers and deadly 3-point shooters who refused to lose. They were embraced by the community while journeying through the first unbeaten season since 1928. They had only three seniors on the roster. Coach: Jason Mays. Finish: Sweet 16 cancelled.
1961 ASHLAND (77) – Cram 1-3 4-4 6, Hilton 4-6 0-0 9, Sergent 5-11 3-4 13, Conley 8-18 6-12 22, Smith 4-7 4-5 12, Sexton 1-3 2-3 4, Daniels 3-4 1-1 7, Fairchild 0-2 0-0 0, Gray 1-2 0-0 2, Johnson 1-2 0-0 2. FG: 28-58. FT: 20-29. 3-point FG: 1-3 (Hilton 1-2, Sexton 0-1). Rebounds: 37 (Cram 3, Hilton 5, Conley 11, Smith 5, Sexton 6, Daniel 3, Sergent 2, Fairchild 1). Assists: 16 (Cram 1, Hilton 1, Sergent 8, Conley 4, Smith 1, Gray 1, Johnson 1). PF: 19. Turnovers: 11.
2020 ASHLAND (74) – Porter 3-4 2-4 9, Hudson 2-11 4-4 10, Villers 10-12 5-5 25, Bradley 3-6 3-4 9, Sellars 2-10 0-0 6, Atkins 1-3 0-0 2, Gillum 1-5 0-1 2, Adkins 1-4 0-0 2, Phillips 3-5 2-3 9, Conway 0-3 0-0 0, Davis 0-0 0-0 0. FG: 26-63. FT: 16-21. 3-point FG: 6-25 (Porter 1-1, Hudson 2-8, Gillum 0-2, Sellars 2-10, Phillips 1-1, Conway 0-2). Rebounds: 30 (Porter 2, Hudson 5, Villers 6, Adkins 1, Gillum 1, Sellars 2, Phillips 8, Bradley 4, Conway 1). Assists: 16 (Porter 3, Hudson 3, Villers 2, Adkins 2, Gillum 2, Sellers 1, Phillips 1, Bradley 1, Davis 1). PF: 25. Turnovers: 9.
1961 ASHLAND 24 13 17 23 – 77
2020 ASHLAND 15 22 21 16 – 74