ASHLAND, Ky. – Even before it was announced that the 1980 and 2002 Ashland Tomcat basketball teams were going to square off in Anderson gym, there was a buzz about the “Battle of the Bigs.”
All the what ifs were about to become reality.
Two of the greatest “bigs” in Tomcat history – 1980’s Jeff Tipton and 2002’s Mark Surgalski – were matched up in a colossal basketball feast for the eyes for Tomcat fans.
The 6-foot-9 Tipton and 6-8 Surgalski were surrounded with talent on their teams and they were no strangers to the bright lights of the Sweet Sixteen with four appearances between them. That made this gigantic matchup more enticing and one of the most anticipated games in the simulated series.
It lived up to the great expectations, coming down to one final trip down the floor with the game on the line and every fan holding their breath while somehow cheering high decibels at the same time. (Don’t ask me how that happened, I’m a writer, not a scientist).
They had battled through seven lead changes and eight ties and one big comeback. The 2002 Tomcats had built a 41-23 lead after Surgalski dunked over Tipton with 1:30 remaining in the first half. It was emphatic. It was convincing. And even embarrassing.
“Man, he was kicking my hind-end,” Tipton said. “He was a lot stronger and quicker than I’d imagined.”
Surgalski’s first half included 12 points and five rebounds as the 2002 Tomcats went into the locker room with a 41-27 advantage.
Tipton was having a tough shooting night, missing six of eight shots in the first half. But things would get better for him and the 1980 Tomcats.
Surgalski could count on one of the best athletes in Ashland history to help him. Arliss Beach, who was best known for his skills as a running back for the Tomcats, was a combination of power and speed that few could match. He also had an explosive first step to the basket, which sent him hurtling to the goal like a freight train. There was not much the 80 Tomcats could do but foul him, so they did. He was 9 of 9 on free throws in the first half alone.
“We didn’t have anybody who could match up with him in strength or quickness,” said 80 Tomcat coach Ernie Simpson. “I guess you could tell that by how many times we fouled him. That had to stop in the second half.”
It was going to be a long road back for the 80 Tomcats, who weren’t a come-from-behind team. But behind John Anderson’s playmaking (10 points, 8 assists), Dirk Anders’ rebounding (14) and Doug Smith’s scoring (12 points, all in the second half), they got on the comeback trail.
Anderson and McCauley both battled foul trouble trying to stop Beach’s powerful moves to the basket. McCauley was 6-3 but his wingspan was much longer, however, Beach bodied him while going to the basket.
Meanwhile, Surgalski and Tipton hammered on each other all night long in a battle that was worth the price of admission
“I’ve never been so tired after a game,” Surgalski said. “Tip is a load in there. Lean on him for 32 minutes and see how you feel. He knows how to use his size well.”
The 80 Tomcats kept hanging around and overtook the 02 Tomcats 55-54 after Tipton sank two free throws early in the fourth quarter. He went on to make 9 of 10 foul shots.
“It was so methodical the way they came back on us,” said 02 Tomcat coach Mike Flynn. “You could feel it coming. I took a couple of timeouts, but it was like a wave, and it kept growing and finally crashed on us.”
It looked like the 02 Tomcats had weathered the storm though after an 8-0 run sent them from down 61-57 to ahead 65-61 with four minutes to play. Consecutive short jumpers from Anderson retied it at 65 and it was still tied at 69 with 1:23 remaining.
Smith scored to put the 80 Tomcats ahead 71-69 and Jeremy Howell tied it at 71 with 30 seconds remaining. Following a timeout, the 80 Tomcats began holding it for on for one last shot.
Everybody was looking inside to Tipton, who was trying to post up Surgalski. The action – and elbows – were fierce and flyin’ from the competitive big men. McCauley was stopped on a drive to the basket and he lofted a pass it to Tipton, who grabbed it with one hand, looked left, spun right and shot a hook shot over Surgalski’s outstretched hand. It was perfect and swished through the net for a 73-71 victory as time expired.
The 80 Tomcats had completed the comeback from 18 points down and Tipton had a double-double with 19 points and 11 rebounds in a Tomcat “Bigs” showdown for the ages. His free throw shooting stunned even him. “You better check that,” he said. “Nine for 10? I’ve never done that.”
“I didn’t even know he had that shot,” Simpson said of the game-winning hook shot that looked like one of Willis Reed’s rainbows. “But we wanted to get it inside to him. What a great game from all our guys. Greg could have taken the shot at the end and, knowing him, probably would have made it.”
Surgalski and Beach scored 19 apiece for the 02 Tomcats, who felt like they let one get away. One alarming statistic was a 1-for-15 showing from the 3-point line. The 80 team didn’t attempt a 3-pointer and held a whopping 46-24 rebounding advantage.
“We had ‘em, man, we had ‘em on the ropes,” said Beach, who was 11 of 14 from the foul line. “They’re good though and so big. I felt like I was going through the forest on some of those drives. They kind of shut those lanes down on me.”
Flynn said it was a tough loss to take after the 02 Tomcats played so well in the first half.
“We knew who we were playing and knew they had the ability to come back,” he said. “I don’t know if we set on the lead or not, but, Arliss is right, we had them down and didn’t finish the job. Can we play this one again? I’ll let Adam Howard do some of the coaching next time around.”
2002 Ashland won the regional title by defeating upstart Rose Hill and O.J. Mayo in an emotional championship. The Tomcats bowed out in the Sweet 16 against Lexington Catholic but won the hearts of their fans with the win over Rose Hill.
1980 Ashland won the last of five consecutive regional titles and then reached the quarterfinals of the Sweet 16 where Jeff Tipton’s 41 points was not enough in a 97-92 overtime loss to Covington Holmes.
2002 ASHLAND (71) – Howell 1-7 1-2 3, Davis 3-11 2-4 9, Surgalski 7-12 5-6 19, J.Cook 2-6 1-2 5, Beach 4-9 11-14 19, Johnson 3-6 0-0 6, Hendrickson 3-4 2-6 8, Howard 0-5 0-0 0, Salyer 0-1 0-0 0, C.Cook 0-1 0-0 0, Miller 1-1 0-0 2. FG: 24-63. FT: 22-32. 3FG: 1-15 (Howell 0-3, Davis 1-6, Surgalski 0-2, Beach 0-1, Johnson 0-1, Howell 0-2). Rebounds: 24 (Davis 3, Howell 1, Surgalski 4, J.Cook 4, Beach 7, Johnson 1, Hendrickson 2, Howard 1, Salyer 1). Assists: 12 (Howell 7, Surgalski 1, J.Cook 2, Beach 1, Johnson 1). PF: 16. Turnovers: 11.
1980 ASHLAND (73) – McCauley 4-9 202 19, Anders 4-8 0-0 8, Smith 5-6 2-3 12, Tipton 5-15 9-10 19, Haller 3-5 0-0 6, McWhorter 1-2 0-0 2, Crank 0-2 0-0 0, Daniel 0-2 0-0 0, Farrow 2-4 2-2 6. FG: 29-62. FT: 15-17. 3FG: None. Rebounds: 46 (McCauley 2, Anders 14, Smith 5, Tipton 11, Anderson 2, Haller 2, McWhorter 2, Daniel 2, Farrow 6). Assists: 18 (McCauey 4, Anderson 8, Anders 2, McWhorter 1, Crank 2, Farrow 1). PF: 26. Turnovers: 23.
2002 ASHLAND 25 16 13 17 – 71
1980 ASHLAND 14 13 22 24 – 73