ASHLAND, Ky. – Ashland’s 2020 basketball team unloaded the bus, grabbed their bags from the luggage area and stepped into a time capsule.
They looked around the parking lot and saw Ford Model-Ts, men wearing shirts and ties, and there was even a place to tie up the horse for those who used that mode of transportation.
It was culture shock as 2020 met 1928.
Most of the men who were lined up outside in the parking lot waiting to get into the gym had worked all day at Armco or Ashland Oil, probably had a meal at good home and put on their good clothes, some even wore fedoras, for the game. Most had cigarettes and others had cigars hanging off their lips, the smoke circling up in perfect waves and into the crisp night. And they were all talking about the Tomcats, both their own and this future team that was to play in the battle of the unbeatens.
They knew this much: Their Tomcats knew how to win. They’d won 37 in a row, beaten teams in the Tri-State, then in the Kentucky state tournament and even in a national tournament.
“Nobody beats our Cats!” one fan yelled at the 2020 Tomcats as they filed into the building. “You guys sure as heck ain’t beating us!”
As Ashland’s 2020 players went through the doors leading inside, they were looking at each other, raising their eyebrows, and then taking in more of the unusual surroundings. They didn’t have to pay, but admission to the game was only 5 cents. Young boys in the “lobby” area were pulling at their warmups to try and get their attention, or maybe just feel that soft material. That smell, too, was different. It was hot-buttered popcorn – 1 penny for a bag – and cigar smoke. It almost made for a sweet aroma.
“It was intoxicating,” said 2020 Tomcats coach Jason Mays. “Our guys were stunned when we got here. I kept waiting for Rod Serling to come out and say, ‘This is the Twilight Zone.’”
As fans came into the gym, they had a checker who looked over what the patron was wearing and directed them to the stands on the side or to the stage if the attire wasn’t proper enough. The men in the fedoras were given some good seating. It was a wild bunch on the stage for the game and at the top of each side of the gym, the windows were propped open, even though it was chilly outside. It was getting stuffy in here.
Their first look at the gym floor they noticed a couple of things. There was no halfcourt line and the foul lane was about four feet wide with a circle that went around the foul stripe. It looked like the shape of a key. They all seemed to get it at once.
Fans were already inside the gym, many more than the fire marshal said should be there. But this game was bigger than big, so the fire marshal saved himself from a riot by letting the fans keep coming. It was the battle of the unbeatens, the only teams in more than 100 years of Tomcat basketball that finished without a blemish.
This two-game series was set up to maybe determine the true Tomcat champion and because fans wanted it. One game would be played on the other’s floor with the other’s rules. On this night, there were no 3-point shots, jump balls after every basket and no 10-second count. Anybody could roam anywhere on either side of the floor. If the teams reached 30, it would be a miracle.
Both teams began warming up and the 2020 Tomcats noticed their opponents weren’t practicing jump shots. Of course, those didn’t come along until the 1930s.
“Just take care of yourself,” Mays instructed them. “Get ready to play.”
Mays took the 2020 Tomcats to the dressing room under the stands and you could feel the noise. There was stomping and cheering and dang near rioting out there. It was intimidating to say the least.
It was different for Mays too, who learned he was to stay on his bench – a wooden plank – and not get up from it except when play was stopped at timeouts or between quarters. The referees were quite emphatic and made sure he understood. Mays shook his head yes, blew a kiss to his wife Lori Beth and kids in the stands on the opposite side, and plopped down for the first jump ball of many on this night. There were 35 by my count.
Ashland’s 1928 team was a chiseled bunch. They didn’t look like high school players. Far from it. Ellis Johnson was one of the dynamic players. He looked like Mr. America with muscular legs and arms bulging through his tight uniform. Darrell Darby was another one, so was Gene Strother. They were sizing up these 2020 Tomcats, who looked sleek and much younger, too.
“But you know,” said Strother afterward. “Those were the most polite boys we’d ever played. Oh, they played hard basketball, but those are some good kids. We loved playing against them.”
The game started fast, by 1928 standards anyway, with Strother and Darby each drilling two-handed set shots during a 9-2 run. The gym sounded like it was coming apart. The 1928 team didn’t have to dribble much because they passed so effectively. The ball, which seemed much bigger than the one the 2020 Tomcats were used to playing with, had laces on it like a football. But the 28 Tomcats knew what to do with it when they got close to the basket.
They got the first jump ball, and then the second with Johnson out-tipping Cole Villers each time. Ashland’s 2020 team was going to have to get used to that part of the game too. They tried different players and Nolan Phillips seemed to have the best control of where the tip was going so they stuck with him.
It took some time for the 2020 Tomcats to settle down. They trailed 9-2 but Colin Porter and Justin Bradley made short jump shots at the close of the quarter to pull them within 9-6. The crowd laughed when they shot – they had never seen anybody shooter a jumper – and then looked at each other wide-eyed when it swished. The teams were settling in and what ensued was some beautiful basketball. The 28 Cats held a 20-15 halftime lead in a game that was going down to the wire.
“We should have had the game won at halftime,” said 28 Coach Jimmy Anderson. “We let up and kind of started watching instead of playing. They got our style down faster than I thought they could. I don’t know how he did it, but Coach Mays had to have us well scouted. He took away some things.”
True enough. The 2020 Tomcats came roaring back in the second half and Ethan Sellars, playing on the floor where his grandfather did more than 50 years ago for Coles Jr. High, hit a long jump shot that would have been worth three points any other night to put the 2020 Tomcats ahead 22-20 three minutes into the second half.
Porter got the hang of what to do with the ball, too. He had the 28 Tomcats chasing him all over the floor, whittling off minutes as he went behind-the-back and between-the-legs with defenders in pursuit. He learned from watching Johnson, who did the same to the 2020 Tomcats in the first half.
“I could have watched that boy all day long,” Anderson said. “If he were on this team, we’d have won every game 2-0 if we could have scored first. I’d make sure he had the ball and there wouldn’t have been any time left.”
By the end of the third quarter, the 28 Tomcats had recovered and pulled ahead 28-22 and it looked like the 2020 Tomcats were done.
But just like the start to the second half, they caught fire – making three consecutive baskets – to tie the game at 28. Phillips scored on a putback and it was all even with only 90 seconds remaining. The clock wasn’t digital, so it was hard to understand the time for the 2020 Tomcats – just one more obstacle in a world of them on this bizarre night.
“I’m not sure we ever figured out how to read that clock and we’re pretty smart guys,” Ethan Hudson said.
The 28 Tomcats got the tip on the jump ball and Johnson began his stall. He dribbled around and through the 2020 Tomcats until colliding with Villers on the baseline. Mays jumped up and hollered “Charge!” – it was heard all over the gym – and luckily he was given a warning instead of a technical foul. Luke Maze did his best to calm him down. It should be noted that Ellis Johnson, who won the sportsmanship award at the state tournament and committed only two fouls all season – helped Villers up after the collision. The foul was called on Villers and Johnson made one of two free throws for a 29-28 lead with only 15 seconds remaining.
“I don’t like to complain about calls … so I won’t,” Mays said afterward. “Let’s just say it was a good thing Luke was with me. He gave us a chance to win by keeping me in check.”
On the ensuing jump ball, Phillips was able to get a clean tip out to Porter, who zipped a long pass down the court to a flying Hudson who laid it in for a 30-29 lead as the 28 Tomcat crowd grew silent. They hadn’t been in this kind of game since the four-overtime state championship win over Carr Creek.
But they didn’t panic. Passes went from Darby to Johnson to Phipps to Strother to Johnson. It was a dizzying display that freed up one last shot, but it was like slow motion when Johnson, from 15 feet away, let fly with a two-handed set shot. The ball seemed to take several minutes to find the basket but it splashed through and the buzzer couldn’t drown out the celebration. The 1928 Tomcats had survived this incredible game, 31-30.
“There will be a rematch!” Sellars said as the 2020 Tomcats were leaving the gym.
Game 2 will be at – Where else? – James A. Anderson Gymnasium.
Ashland’s 1928 team was 37-0 and won the state and national championship. The Tomcats four-overtime win over Carr Creek remains one of the most amazing games in Sweet 16 history. Ellis Johnson went on to play at UK and was Adolph Rupp’s first All-American.
Ashland’s 2020 team finished 33-0 but was denied playing in the Sweet 16 because of the coronavirus. Coach Jason Mays’ team relied on the 3-point shot, shooting more behind the arc than in front of it.
2020 ASHLAND (30) – Porter 4-5 0-0 8, Bradley 1-1 0-0 2, Sellars 2-4 1-2 5, Villers 3-6 2-2 8, Hudson 1-3 1-2 3, Gillum 0-1 0-0 0, Phillips 1-2 0-0 2, Adkins 1-2 0-0 2, Atkins 0-1 0-0 0. FG: 11-25. FT: 4-6. Rebounds: 12 (Porter 2, Bradley 1, Gillum 2, Sellars 2, Villers 2, Phillips 2, Adkins 1). Assists: 5 (Porter 1, Bradley 1, Gillum 1, Phillips 1, Hudson 1). PF: 11. Turnovers: 7.
1928 ASHLAND (31) – Phipps 1-3 2-2 4, Fullerton 1-3 0-0 2, Strother 2-6 2-4 6, Darby 2-5 1-4 5, Johnson 3-6 2-4 8, Wolfe 0-2 0-0 0, Hemlepp 1-2 1-1 3, Riffe 1-2 1-1 3. FG: 12-27. FT: 7-11. Rebounds: 18 (Phipps 3, Fullerton 1, Strother 3, Darby 2, Johnson 6, Wolfe 1, Hemlepp 2). Assists: 7 (Phipps 2, Fullerton 1, Strother 1, Darby 1, Wolfe 2). PF: 7. Turnovers: 6.
2020 ASHLAND 6 9 7 8 – 30
1928 ASHLAND 9 11 8 3 – 31