61 Tomcats withstand late barrage from 53 Tomcats

(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. – A highly anticipated matchup between two of Ashland’s greatest teams lived up to expectations.

The 1961 Tomcats pulled ahead early in the second quarter and never surrendered the lead, despite big games from Earl “Brother” Adkins and Bob Emrick, to defeat the 1953 Tomcats, 72-66.

Emrick scored 26 and Adkins 23, but the 61 Tomcats clamped down on everybody else. Meanwhile, Harold Sergent pumped in 22 points to lead three in double figures.

Harold Sergent on a takeaway against 53 Tomcats.

One unusual part of the battle was Larry Conley playing against his father, 53 coach George Conley. Larry grew up idolizing the 53 Tomcats and Wednesday he helped defeat them with 17 points and four rebounds.

“That was completely strange,” he said. “Those guys were my heroes. I can remember playing in the gym and Dad running those guys like crazy.”

The younger Conley must have learned well. He put his 61 Cats ahead for good at 21-20 with a pair of free throws early in the second quarter. While they never regained the lead, the 53 Cats stayed within striking distance and erupted for 27 points in the fourth quarter to make it interesting.

“We waited too long to start playing,” a none-too-happy coach George Conley said. “You can’t do that against great teams. I told our guys this was one we should have won if we’d played the rest of the game like we did in the fourth quarter.”

The coach who would later be a referee wasn’t happy about the difference in fouls – the 53 Cats had 19 compared to eight for 61. “Now I’m not one to talk about the officiating, but that doesn’t seem quite right to me. My guys’ arms were blood red.”

As for facing off against his son, the Senator said it was an honor. “Larry turned into a fine ballplayer. I was proud of him out there. He learned a lot.”

Gene Smith had 10 points and Bob Hilton nine for the 61 Cats, who shot 53 percent from the field. Sergent had seven assists to go along with his team-high scoring total.

“Sarge is a handful,” George Conley said. “If he wasn’t beating us to the basket he was giving it to somebody else to beat us to the basket. I’d play him a lot different next time.”

Larry Conley put the 61 Cats ahead 60-47 with 5:38 remaining with a long 3-pointer and it looked like it was over. But a flurry of baskets from Emrick and Adkins sliced the lead to 68-63 with 27 seconds to play. With 14 seconds, Adkins drilled a 25-footer to make it 70-66 but Conley swished two free throws to ice the hard-fought win.

It was a measure of revenge for 61 coach Bob Wright, who was the coach at Vanceburg in 1953 when Ashland scored 112 in the 16th Region championship game.

“I’m not going to say that wasn’t on my mind,” Wright said. “Holding them to 66 points shows how great this team defends (the 53 Tomcats averaged 75 per game). They executed our game plan to perfection. We knew when Adkins got comfortable with the 3-point shot it was going to be trouble. I’m just glad he didn’t take any more shots than he did.”

Twelve of Adkins’ 14 shots were from behind the arc. Point guard Bill “Squirt” Jennings was held to three points on 1-for-7 shooting but he did have seven assists.

“Sarge was all over him,” Wright said. “That’s what good defense will do.”

3-point introduction

The 61 and 53 players were asking before the game why there was an arc painted around the top of the key. When told about the 3-point shot, “Brother” Adkins’ and Harold Sergent’s eyes lit up like Christmas morning.

“That’s where I normally shoot anyway,” Adkins said, rubbing his hands together.

“Yeah,” chimed in Sergent, “this is like taking candy from a baby.”

The 53 Tomcats were 11 of 20 from downtown with Adkins nailing 7 of 12 triples. The 61 Tomcats were a respectable 8 of 19, but Sergent, who scored a team-high 22, was only 1 of 4 behind the arc.

Real life

1953 Ashland was the top-ranked team in the state when the Tomcats were stunned by Paducah 46-44 in the opening round. Led by stars Earl “Brother” Adkins and Bill Emrick, these Tomcats are still regarded as one of the most talented in Ashland history.

1961 Ashland is considered THE team in Tomcat history. They were state champions, fashioned a 36-1 record and all five starters received Division I scholarships. Historians consider them one of the greatest state champions in Kentucky history.


1953 ASHLAND (66) – Jennings 1-7 0-0 3, Henderson 1-2 0-0 3, Adkins 8-14 0-0 23, Emrick 11-17 2-2 26, Marshall 2-5 0-0 4, Gray 1-3 1-2 3, Woods 1-2 0-0 2, Jones 1-1 0-0 2, Bailey 0-1 0-0 0. FGs: 26-52. FT: 3-4. 3-point FG: 11-20 (Jennings 1-3, Henderson 1-1, Adkins 7-12, Emrick 2-3, Woods 0-1). Rebounds: 22 (Jennings 3, Henderson 6, Adkins 1, Emrick 5, Marshall 3, Gray 2, Woods 3). Assists: 13 (Jennings 7, Henderson 4, Adkins 1, Woods 1). PF: 19. Turnovers: 10.

1961 ASHLAND (72) – Sergent 8-12 5-6 22, Cram 2-4 0-1 5, Conley 5-10 4-4 17, Hilton 4-7 0-0 9, Smith 5-9 0-0 10, Fairchild 1-2 0-0 2, Johnson 0-2 0-0 0, Daniels 0-2 0-0 0, Sexton 2-2 1-2 7. FG: 27-51. FT: 10-13. 3-point FGs: 8-19 (Sergent 1-4, Sexton 1-2, Conley 3-6, Hilton 1-2, Cram 1-2, Johnson 0-2). Rebounds: 21 (Sergent 2, Sexton 2, Conley 4, Hilton 4, Smith 4, Cram 1, Daniels 2, Fairchild 2). Assists: 13 (Sergent 7, Sexton 2, Conley 2, Cram 2). PF: 8. Turnovers: 6.

1953 ASHLAND     15         14         10         27           –            66

1961 ASHLAND     14         20         18         20           –            72

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