ASHLAND, Ky. – When the 1928 Ashland Tomcat basketball team arrived for their rematch with the 1961 Tomcats, they noticed a couple of changes to their old gym at Ashland High School on Lexington Avenue.
For one, the doors had been replaced and painted a nice maroon. But it was inside the gym where the changes were more drastic. There was a stripe painted exactly at the halfway point of the floor. And, they could see clear through the backboards! They went up underneath the goals and studied that part, grabbed a basketball that was sitting near their bench – one with no laces – and began tossing up shots.
“This is going to be different,” said Darrell Darby, who flipped the basketball up against the clear backboard about four times. It came off the backboard much faster than the wooden backboard that deadened the ball when it hit. “It’s going to take some getting used to.”
One by one, each of the 1928 Tomcats took a turn at shooting bank shots. After about a dozen turns each, with varying degrees of success, the ball was going in every time. They’d at least figured out that part.
“Fast learners,” said 1928 coach Jimmy Anderson.
They saw a plague on the wall commemorating the 28 national championship season.
“Look over here guys,” said Ellis Johnson, maybe the most notable of the ’28 Tomcats. “We need to beat these guys tonight. Maybe they’ll put up another one of these if we do.”
The 61 Tomcats had already done what nobody in 1928 did and that was hand those Tomcats a defeat. It was a heartbreaker, 37-36, when Bob Hilton finished off a fastbreak that was set up by an unfortunate turnover.
“Right here, this is it, right here,” said Jack Phipps of the dead spot on the floor that caused the turnover. “The ball won’t come back up. Just watch!” He bounced a basketball in the very spot and, sure enough, it didn’t come back up. “It’s still dead wood right there.”
Phipps walked away, shaking his head and mumbling something about that fateful play. Probably best it was a mumble. A lot had been said and written about the game, and the return engagement, which has the town excited and a little on edge.
When the 28 Tomcats were ready to get dressed for the game, they started heading down to their old locker room.
“Nope,” said a gentleman in rolled-up shirt sleeves. “You guys are the visitors tonight.”
This was going to be different. They headed to the other side of the gym and went into that locker room. It was mostly the same look except the toilet wouldn’t flush and the showers didn’t have much pressure, only a drizzle. The benches looked like the same ones that had been there for 40 years with a few less splinters.
“This doesn’t matter men,” Anderson told them. “We’re here to play basketball.”
The rematch would be with rules from 1961. That meant a faster tempo and no jump balls after every made basket. It was going to be a different kind of game, but the 28 Tomcats were looking forward to it.
“We’re basketball players,” Johnson said. “One rule that doesn’t change is that the team with the most points wins. That’s all we care about.”
There was a certain resolve with the 28 Tomcats, who were determined to show their fellow champion Tomcats a thing or two in this rematch.
“I’m sure they’ll be ready for us,” said 61 coach Bob Wright. “We’ve been practicing, too. I’ve never seen so many good athletes on one team. They’re incredible. So we practiced … a lot.”
Wright, who was known for his long and sometimes brutal practices, had two four-hour sessions one day. He told them they’d only need their sneakers for the second one.
“We all knew what that meant,” said Gene Smith, a center on the team.
Wright had watched 16 mm film of the first game – probably about 100 times – and was determined his team wouldn’t be making any of the same mistakes.
“He knew every single wrong dribble we took,” said Larry Conley, one of the 61 stars. “He thought we should have scored 60 on them even with their rules. But that wasn’t going to happen. These guys are like trying to move oak trees.”
Another huge crowd was gathering in the old gym. This time they sold advance tickets, which was probably a good thing. Besides nearly 1,500 inside (for a gym that seated a little more than half that) another 500 were on the parking lot hoping somebody would give them reports. They set up a way for them to hear Dick Martin’s broadcast of the game. His son, Dicky, only 7 years old in 1961, was with him taking in a moment in time he’d talk about for years. He had a bag of popcorn in one hand and a candy bar in the other, but he was in Tomcat Heaven.
It’s hard to say how many others were tuned into WCMI for the radio broadcast of one of the biggest games in Tomcat history. It was the talk of town.
Just like the first meeting, only in an exaggerated pace, the teams stayed right with each other early. When Kermit Riffe completed a three-point play following a hard foul, the 1928 Tomcats were leading 19-18. The crowd was buzzing.
“We punched and they punched back hard,” Wright said. “I knew we were in for a tough game.”
He tried to get that across to the 61 Tomcats during a timeout following Riffe’s three-point play. Even though they had knocked him up against the padding on the stage end of the floor, Wright said it wasn’t enough.
“Don’t let these guys get comfortable,” he said in a harsh tone.
The 61 Tomcats led 22-21 at the end of the first quarter after Conley used a spin move to get away from the tight defense of Gene Strother. The game had signs of being a high-scoring affair and the 28 Tomcats didn’t seem to mind.
It was more the same in the second quarter, too. The 61 Tomcats led anywhere from one point to eight points but the 28 Tomcats were hanging with them. Phipps buried a 22-footer to bring the 28 Tomcats within 44-38.
“That was some half,” Wright said. “Not sure our defense was where it needed to be, but we got the offense clicking after a little heart to heart. Sarge and Conley were outstanding and the tip-out (play) worked to perfection.”
Gene Smith, Steve Cram, Bob Hilton and Conley tipped the ball back instead of pulling in the rebound with two hands and it started the offense in motion with Harold Sergent usually as the point man. It was devastating, as usual.
“We never had a team do that to us,” Anderson said. “Our games were a little more methodical, I guess you would say. We got the hang of getting it and going eventually but that’s not how this team was made or what they did best.”
The 61 Tomcats maintained the lead throughout the third quarter, but never by more than seven points. They led 62-56 going into the last quarter after Cram dropped in a pair of free throws.
“We couldn’t shake them,” Hilton said. “No matter what we did, it seemed like they had an answer for it. The key for us was to keep scoring because they were going to do the same.”
Jerry Daniel, who played strong off the bench, pump faked his defender and drove for a basket to make it 67-60 early in the fourth quarter. They were able to stretch it to double figures for the first time at 78-68 when Smith tipped in a miss. After the team’s traded baskets, it was 80-70 with 2:25 remaining.
Finally, Wright said, “we had some breathing room.”
But it would be a breathless finish. The 28 Tomcats, playing their best when down the most, stormed back. Johnson and Phipps both hit from short range, sandwiched around a 61 Tomcat turnover. Then a Conley layup went around and around the rim and spun out, with Johnson rebounding. He threw a near length-of-the floor pass to Eck Allen, who laid it in to make it 80-76. Another turnover – this time a three-second call – and the 28 Tomcats were back in business.
Suddenly with some confidence, they worked it around until Darby fired in a 15-foot bank shot to make it 80-78.
The crowd was going bonkers. Wright had exhausted two timeouts, but the momentum was clearly on the other side. There wasn’t much he could say.
The 61 Tomcats worked it around, but missed again, and Darby was there with the rebound with only 45 seconds to play. Anderson took the timeout this time, but it would be a wonder if anybody in the huddle could have heard him the crowd was so loud.
Never had anybody seen it like this.
Using a play that Anderson designed on the spur of the moment, the 28 Tomcats tied it at 80 with Johnson powering his way inside after having his defender picked off at the foul line.
Now it was Wright’s turn in this chess match of brilliant coaches. He put the ball in the hands of Sergent, who found Conley in the middle. He collided with Darby and scored with no foul called to make it 82-80.
One more time, the 28 Tomcats had to answer. They worked it around until Strother was about 10 feet from the basket. He was at the perfect angle for a bank shot, but wasn’t sure if he trusted that glass backboard. The hesitation was costly and the shot was a little strong. It kissed off the backboard and dangled to the front of the rim, where it set suspended for what seemed like minutes, before rolling off.
Smith reached high for the rebound, tipping it out front to Sergent and that was it. The 1961 Tomcats had prevailed 82-80 in a game that no one is likely to ever forget.
When the 61 Tomcats return to the locker room they found a goat tied to the bench. It represented making them the GOAT – greatest of all time – in Ashland basketball. Wright wasn’t buying it.
“I’ve been involved in a lot of great games but not many any greater than this one,” Wright said. “And as for being the greatest Tomcat champion of all, I don’t know about that. This program has a lot of teams that could make that claim, including all the way back to these 1928 Tomcats and this year’s 2020 team.”
Anderson said the comeback from 10 points down in the last 2½ minutes showed him what the 1928 Tomcats had inside them.
“They are competitors who don’t accept losing well,” he said. “The determination and effort that came in the comeback was something nobody has ever seen. We scored 10 consecutive points on them. I doubt anybody did that in 1961. I’ll be glad to return to 1928. I’ve seen all I want to of Larry Conley and Harold Sergent.”
Two individual performances worth noting was Conley scoring 27 on 11-of-13 shooting. He also had six rebounds. Johnson led the 28 Tomcats with 22 points on 11-for-12 shooting.
Father and son
Ken Johnson also got in the game for a couple of minutes to play against his father Ellis Johnson. Ken hit a free throw and grabbed a rebound.
1928 ASHLAND (80) – Fullerton 3-4 0-0 6, Phipps 4-7 1-1 9, Darby 3-9 5-6 11, Strother 5-13 2-2 12, Johnson 11-12 0-1 22, Hemlepp 1-3 0-0 2, Barney 2-4 1-1 5, Dobbs 1-2 0-0 2, Nicholas 0-4 0-0 0, Allen 3-4 0-0 6, Riffe 1-1 1-1 3, Wolfe 1-1 0-0 2. FG: 34-63. FT: 10-12. Rebounds 40 (Fullerton 4, Phipps 4, Darby 8, Strother 5, Johnson 4, Hemlepp 1, Barney 1, Wolfe 3, Riffe 3, Allen 6, Nicholas 1). Assists: 21 (Fullerton 6, Phipps 3, Darby 4, Johnson 1, Hemlepp 2, Barney 2, Dobbs 2, Nicholas 1). PF: 27. Turnovers: 24.
1961 ASHLAND (82) – Sergent 7-13 2-5 16, Hilton 2-12 0-0 4, Sexton 1-5 2-4 4, Smith 2-7 9-12 13, Conley 11-13 5-6 27, Cram 3-6 1-2 7, Fairchild 1-5 0-0 2, Gray 1-6 2-2 4, Johnson 0-1 1-2 1, Daniel 2-3 0-1 4. FG: 30-71. FT: 22-34. Rebounds: 32 (Sergent 2, Sexton 3, Hilton 7, Smith 4, Conley 6, Cram 4, Fairchild 2, Gray 3, Johnson 1). Assists: 15 (Sergent 3, Hilton 3, Sexton 3, Conley 2, Smith 1, Cram 1, Fairchild 2). PF: 17. Turnovers: 8.
1928 ASHLAND 21 17 18 24 – 80
1961 ASHLAND 22 22 18 16 – 82