ASHLAND, Ky. – The parade of 1920s automobiles carrying the 1928 Tomcat basketball team to James A. Anderson Gymnasium was moving through town with lots of gawkers.
The players waved at cheering people who gathered on their porches or in their front yards to catch a glimpse of the undefeated national champions. It was easy enough to see them since the cars weren’t going very fast.
When the line of cars turned off Floyd Street and onto the road leading to the Paul G. Blazer High School campus, this new reality began settling in. Was this a futuristic city? “That’s where we’re going to play?” asked Darrell Darby, one of the 1928 Tomcat stars.
As they came closer, they were told to park the cars under the gymnasium where the words “James A. Anderson Gymnasium” hangs from the wall. It was their coach’s name.
“Coach!” said Ellis Johnson, pointing toward the wall. “Look!”
They gathered up the gear, most of it bawled up in pillow covers. They had their Converses tied around their necks. Most of the players were wearing shirts and ties because Coach Anderson told them to look sharp.
“Winners always look like winners,” said the John Wooden of Tomcat basketball.
It had been a week since the 1928 Tomcats met the only other team in Tomcat history that had accomplished what they did – win every game in a season. The 2020 Tomcats had gone 33-0- and the 1928 Tomcats understood how that happened after battling with them at home, in the old gym on Lexington Avenue. The 1928 Cats won again, 31-30, on a last-second shot from Johnson. But that one was played with rules from 1928. The rematch would be on the 2020 team’s home floor and with their rules, including the 3-point shot, which was their weapon of choice.
Coach Jason Mays had unleashed a team of pure basketball players on the 16th Region in 2020 and they did everything he asked and more. As their streak carried on into the twenties and then the thirties, the link to the past started becoming more obvious. The 1928 Tomcats had gone 37-0, maybe the greatest season in Kentucky history, and won the state and national high school tournaments.
It was still hours before the game was going to be played because Coach Anderson wanted to give his players a chance to calm down after seeing what they were going to be seeing. He saw how affected the 2020 Tomcats were when they stepped back in time last week. Anderson noticed those 2020 Cats were big-eyed throughout much of the first half. He couldn’t afford that to happen to the 1928 Cats, who were about to play a style of game they had never imagined. They practiced their 3-point shooting – it was tougher with the two-handed set shot – and learned to play at a much faster pace. They tried to mimic what they saw last week with the jump shot – the first time they had seen anybody have both feet leave the floor while taking a shot aside from a layup. It was still awkward for them.
They came into the Anderson lobby, looked at the trophy cases and even found their own trophy and the deflated ball from that masterful championship game with Carr Creek. That was surreal. So was the plaque on the wall that tells of the national championship season. The 28 Tomcats were emotional looking at the memorabilia.
The 2020 Tomcats greeted them in the lobby. A special friendship was developing between them. After all, they were kindred spirits in a very unique club that may well have only two members ever. The 2020 Tomcats talked about being denied the chance to play in the Sweet 16 because of a mysterious virus. The 1928 Tomcats could relate. They were 6- to 8-year-old boys in Ashland when the Spanish Flu was active in 1918. School was cancelled, including the entire football season, they told them. It was awful, they said. History often repeats itself.
A meal was set up for the teams so they could eat together. Box lunches were put out from Chick-fil-A and a dozen 18-inch Givovanni’s pizzas of all combinations were made available. Guess what? The 1928 Tomcats loved it all!
“I’ve never tasted anything like this,” said Bill Hemlepp, jamming in his fourth slice of sausage and mushroom. “And you guys get to eat this stuff all the time? I’m jealous.”
“It ain’t as good as my grandma’s fried chicken,” chimed in Johnson, “but it ain’t bad. I’d wait in a line for this chicken.”
“Well,” Ethan Hudson said, “we do.”
While the players were getting to know each other better, Mays and Anderson met in the coach’s office for a skull session. Afterward, Mays said he was trying to be a sponge, soaking up every word Anderson had to say. “I was enthralled,” he said. “I sat there and listened, not saying a word. It was the best coaching clinic I’ve had in my life.”
Before the 1928 Tomcats headed to the dressing room, they were able to sneak a look inside Anderson gym. Their attention went to the large 1928 national championship banner on the far side of the gym. “Well will you take a look at that,” said Eck Allen, pointing to the banner.
Fans weren’t here yet, so the seats were empty. The gym was sparkling and it was soon going to be full with this being the hottest ticket in this gym since President Nixon visited in 1972 or was that O.J. Mayo in 2001?
“Wow!” said Gene Strother. “This is even better than Alumni Gym in Lexington (where the 1928 state tournament was played). Look at how big that foul lane is? I could get lost in there!”
Each of the players also saw a 3-point line for the first time except for one that Coach Anderson taped on the floor at their gym for practice.
“Look! There it is,” Johnson said. “It makes an arc.”
The next time they saw the floor, the stands were as full as anybody could ever remember, the Tomcat pep band was playing and the atmosphere was electric. It was dripping with anticipation of what was about to transpire.
Could this game measure up to last week’s first game in the series? You bet it could.
The 1928 Tomcats were shellshocked early, falling behind 30-17 – a typical night’s work on most nights – as the 2020 Tomcats started out in fullcourt pressure. Cole Villers scored nine points, a sign of what was to come from the sophomore, and it looked like a blowout was coming
But a funny thing happened in the second quarter. The 2020 Tomcats went cold from behind the arc, misfiring time and time again. Meanwhile, the 1928 Tomcats not only got used to the pressure, they began liking it. They looked more like the Los Angeles Lakers than a high school team, beating the Tomcats to spots and firing up hoops from everywhere. They were finding the bottom of the net, too. The 1928 Tomcats put up a whopping 36 points and still trailed 55-53 at the half.
It became obvious though that these guys could play any style of basketball.
“They were stunned in the early going but we were the ones stunned going into halftime,” Mays said. “I took the press off after they burned us about five straight times, but they continued to move the ball quicker than I thought was possible. I’ll be honest with you, I wasn’t sure how we were going to stop them.”
It didn’t help that guard Colin Porter was in foul trouble and played only sparingly in the first half. Villers and Ethan Sellars kept the offense going.
Jack Phipps, one of the few seniors on the 1928 team, said the that green sweet drink in the big orange containers seemed to be giving them energy.
“I don’t know what was in that jug, but I’d like to have more of it,” he said of the Gatorade that the 2020 Tomcats provided. “Our tongues were dragging early and wagging later. We started telling those boys to pick it up a little.”
Villers had scored 20 by halftime and the Tomcats fired up 20 triples and made six. The 1928 Tomcats, still unfamiliar with the arc, went 2-for-8 in the opening half on treys. When it was over, the 2020 Tomcats had made 10 of 31 and the 1928 Tomcats 5 of 19. So the 3-pointer was less of a factor than first thought.
“Our guys had a hard time shooting that new-fangled shot,” Anderson said of the 3-pointer. “They kept looking down to see where their feet were. By the time they looked back up, those boys were on them. But we did like race it up the floor.”
The 1928 Tomcats were 14-for-18 from the field in the second quarter alone in a blistering performance. “Our defense was bad,” Mays said. “I don’t know what happened.”
In the second half, both teams kept up a torrid pace to the delight of everybody in the stands but not the coaches. It was a game that nobody expected between teams that took great pride in defense. But they were having a blast scoring the ball. The 28 Tomcats outscored the 20 Tomcats, 27-21, in the third quarter and Kermit Riffe’s driving basket had them ahead 80-76 entering the last eight minutes.
“I could tell we were wearing down even though we were ahead,” Anderson said. “The most we scored in a game all season was 54 and that was against a team not nearly as good as this Tomcat team.”
Meanwhile, Mays said his Tomcats were brimming with confidence even though they trailed. “I don’t remember them one time all season panicking. They just knew how to win.”
Villers, who finished with 38 points, scored on a fastbreak to put the 2020 Tomcats into the lead at 84-82. Johnson tied it with a surprising hook shot and then Hudson drilled a long 3-pointer for an 87-84 advantage. The teams punched back and forth and the game was tied at 92 when Villers swished a pair of free throws to make it 94-92. The fans were delirious with both teams approaching the century mark.
Like a pair of heavyweight boxers, they kept taking punches. Strother tied it again at 94 and the 28 Tomcats got a steal and went ahead 96-94 when Darby hit from short range. There was a hush over Anderson gym when Mays called timeout with 35 seconds to play and his team down 96-94.
“I knew we had to score,” Mays said. They did, with Justin Bradley drilling one from the corner to tie it again at 96. The teams exchanged baskets for one last tie at 98 with only 10 seconds remaining. The 28 Tomcats had the ball under their own basket when Sellars, seemingly coming out of nowhere, made a diving steal. He tipped the ball back in play while crashing out of bounds and Nolan Phillips, who had been guarding the inbounds pass, scooped it up and laid it in for the 100th point and a 100-98 victory that set off a celebration like this gym had never seen in its 58-year history.
It must have been akin to what the 1928 Tomcats experienced the night they won the state title, when the fans from Ashland and Carr Creek stormed the floor lifting their heroes on their shoulders and parading them around the court after the epic four-overtime game. Fans from both sides were all over Anderson gym, too. The sweat-soaked coaches embraced and so did the players when they could find each other.
Nothing was really lost, just a lot of respect won.
1928 ASHLAND (98) – Strothers 8-16 0-0 19, Fullerton 2-4 3-4 8, Darby 6-17 8-8 21, Johnson 5-10 4-5 14, Phipps 4-5 2-2 10, Riffe 4-15 2-8 10, Barney 2-8 3-3 7, Hemlepp 4-4 1-2 9, Allen 0-1 0-0 0. FG: 35-80. FT: 23-32. 3FG: 5-19 (Strother 3-8, Fullerton 1-4, Darby 1-4, Barney 0-3, Allen 0-1). Rebounds: 48 (Strother 3, Fullerton 5, Darby 8, Johnson 6, Phipps 8, Riffe 5, Barney 4, Hemlepp 7, Allen 2). Assists: 16 (Strother 5, Fullerton 3, Darby 2, Phipps 1, Barney 3, Hemlepp 1, Allen 1). PF: 25. Turnovers: 21.
2020 ASHLAND (100) – Porter 2-4 2-4 6, Gillum 2-6 2-2 6, Sellars 7-12 0-0 18, Villers 13-23 12-12 38, Bradley 2-2 2-4 7, Hudson 4-12 0-0 10, Adkins 1-7 2-5 5, Atkins 1-4 2-6 2, Phillips 2-8 0-0 6, Davis 0-0 0-0 0, Conway 0-5 0-0 0. FG: 34-80. FT: 22-33. 3FG: 10-31 (Gillum 0-3, Sellars 4-9, Bradley 1-1, Hudson 2-5, Hudson 1-4, Phillips 2-7, Conway 0-2). Rebounds: 42 (Porter 4, Gillum 2, Sellars 3, Villars 10, Bradley 5, Hudson 3, Adkins 1, Atkins 3, Phillips 5, Davis 1, Conway 5). Assists: 16 (Porter 3, Gillum 1, Sellars 2, Villers 1, Bradley 1, Hudson 4, Adkins 2, Atkins 1, Davis 1). PF: 26. Turnovers: 20.
1928 ASHLAND 17 36 27 18 – 98
2020 ASHLAND 30 25 21 24 – 100