ASHLAND, Ky. – When Paul Patterson became Ashland’s new basketball coach in 1976, he made one thing clear. The Tomcats were going to win with defense.
Tough, make-the-opponent-miserable man-to-man defense. Patterson instituted a goal of allowing no more than 49 points per game. He put it on practice jerseys and he drove it into his players’ minds.
Patterson’s defensive philosophy would alter the coaching mindset in the 16th Region. Instead of freewheeling offense and high-scoring games, defense was about to take center stage. Teams went away from zones and it became a man-to-man region with hard-nosed defensive teams becoming the norm.
Of course, it took some proving.
The 77 Tomcats did just that, going 30-2 and allowing only 59 points per game. They held opponents under 49 in 19 games. They won the state quarterfinal game over Shelby County, 44-42, in an absolute physical war.
Defense was always the cornerstone for Patterson, who won four consecutive regional championships and never lost a game against any regional opponent in regular season or postseason during his four seasons on the Tomcat bench. He also had his detractors who feared the slow pace would be boring to fans who were used to run-and-gun basketball. Nobody seemed to get bored with winning though.
So why not match up one of Ashland’s greatest defensive teams with its greatest offensive team? Get ready for the showdown between the 77 Tomcats and the 61 Tomcats in Anderson gym.
The talk leading up to this one was how many points would be put up on the scoreboard in Anderson gym, home of the 77 Tomcats. The 61 Tomcats averaged 85 points per game on the way to a 36-1 record. They were under 60 only one time – the 59-58 loss to Lafayette.
So this was going to be good.
The 77 Tomcats were methodical, always controlling the pace of play, and the 61 Tomcats never stopped running, Both teams had size and college-level talent with outstanding coaches. With 6-foot-7 Jeff Kovach, 6-4 Jim Harkins and 6-3 Mark Swift, the 71 Tomcats matched up well inside.
“If we don’t dictate the pace and limit fastbreak opportunities, they will blow us out of the gym,” Patterson said before the game. “We must control the game.”
It was going to be a tug-of-war of wills. The 61 Tomcats used their fullcourt trap to push the tempo and create scoring opportunities. While they were a high-scoring team, it was because of an extremely effective defense that forced turnovers that quickly became baskets. Patterson knew they had to limit the runs.
Wright said it was important to be patient but take the opportunities because in the halfcourt situation, he hadn’t seen a better defense. “And I’ve seen a lot of good ones,” he said.
There was a nervousness in that statement. Wright knew what the 61 Tomcats were up against in this strong Tomcat team.
Patterson was just as nervous about controlling the 61 Tomcats. “You just don’t see teams with this kind of talent. And Larry Conley’s ability to do everything so well makes him tough to defend. Harold Sergent is one of the best guards I’ve ever seen. We won’t change what we do well though.”
True to his words, the 77 Tomcats jumped in front 17-9 with Jim Harkins scoring seven. It was a stunning start. Fans of the 61 Tomcats kept waiting for the eruption but it hadn’t come yet. The fundamentally solid 77 Tomcats boxed out with ferocity and kept Gene Smith and Bob Hilton from back-tipping rebounds and ignited the fastbreak. Game tempo had successfully been established.
And that’s how they controlled the game.
The 61 Tomcats couldn’t put a run together but did manage to pull within 27-22 on Sergent’s drive past Greg Swift with 34 seconds to play in the first half and that would be the halftime score.
“We were frustrated at halftime,” Conley said. “They had set the tempo and we couldn’t get it away from them. The little Swift handled our pressure so well. He made some nice passes to get out of some double teams. That’s a well-coached team.”
Kovach’s two free throws made it 34-28 but a 7-0 run – the best the 61 Tomcats had mustered – put them ahead for the first time since early in the first quarter at 35-34. Patterson took a timeout to settle down his team that seemed out of sorts for the first time.
“We missed a couple of easy shots and didn’t take care of the ball on a third possession,” Patterson said. “We had to get back to what we could do well.”
Wright said he thought the 61 Tomcats were about to take off.
“They came back to the huddle more excited than I’d seen them all night,” he said. “They were confident.”
The 77 Tomcats came out of the timeout with the ball and held onto it for two minutes before Dale Dummit buried a 10-footer after following a hard screen from Mark Swift.
However, Cram and Conley scored on back-to-back trips to make it 39-36.
“We had them right there, we had them,” Conley said.
But then they didn’t. Mark Swift scored off a nice pass from his brother Greg and then tipped away the inbound pass, which Dummit ran down and flipped back to Mark Swift for a layup and a 40-39 lead entering the last quarter.
The 1977 pep band started playing “Jet Airliner” and the crowd started getting loud. They were proud of what their team had accomplished. They had held the mighty 61 Tomcats under 40 through three quarters, something nobody was able to do in 1961.
Hilton tied the game at 45 with four minutes remaining on a short jumper, but the 77 Tomcats gained a better grip with back-to-back baskets from Harkins and Kovach to make it 49-45. They never trailed again although the 61 Tomcats pulled within 54-52 with 1:45 remaining on another Conley drive.
The 77 Tomcats finished on a 7-2 run, including three for three on free throws in the last 15 seconds, to secure the 61-54 victory.
Fans rushed the floor to celebrating this hard-fought win over the team most consider the greatest in Tomcat history.
“They played their butts off,” Wright said. “I have no complaints. Coach Patterson had them ready for us and they controlled the pace the whole game. It was a chess match and he got me this time. We’d so some things different if we get a rematch.”
Conley scored 14 with seven rebounds and he made all 10 of his free throws. Smith collected 11 points and five rebounds.
Kovach led the 77 Tomcats with 17 points and Harkins scored 16 and Mark Swift 12. That trio combined for 14 rebounds.
“All my life, those guys were the ones,” Mark Swift said. “Nobody was better. To get the chance to even be on the same floor with them is something I’ll never forget. To actually beat them, well, that just tells you something about my teammates. I’m proud to be a Tomcat.”
Ashland’s 1961 team finished 36-1 and captured the state championship, the fourth in school history. They are regarded as one of the greatest teams in Kentucky high school history.
Ashland’s 1977 team had a 30-2 record and advanced to the Sweet 16 semifinals before losing to Louisville Valley. These Tomcats may have been the best defensive team of the modern era.
1961 ASHLAND (54) – Sergent 4-10 0-1 8, Cram 4-9 1-1 9, Hilton 3-6 3-4 9, Conley 2-4 10-10 14, Smith 5-6 1-1 11, Sexton 0-2 1-2 1, Daniel 0-1 0-0 0, Fairchild 1-2 0-0 2, Johnson 0-2 0-0 0. FG: 19-42. FT: 16-19. Rebounds: 26 (Sergent 1, Cram 3, Hilton 4, Conley 7, Smith 6, Sexton 3, Daniel 1, Fairchild 1). Assists: 11 (Sergent 3, Cram 3, Hilton 1, Conley 2, Smith 1, Daniel 1). PF: 24. Turnovers: 16.
1977 ASHLAND (61) – G.Swift 3-4 0-0 6, M.Swift 3-7 5-7 11, Smith 2-6 2-3 6, Harkins 5-11 6-10 16, Kovach 4-7 9-10 17, Allen 1-1 0-0 2, Dummit 1-2 1-2 3, Welch 0-1 0-0 0, Henderson 0-0 0-0 0. FG: 19-39. FT: 23-32. Rebounds: 22 (G.Swift 1, M.Swift 4, Smith 2, Harkins 4, Kovach 6, Allen 3, Welch 2). Assists: 12 (G.Swift 5, M.Swift 3, Smith 2, Harkins 1, Kovach 1). PF: 14. Turnovers: 13.
1961 ASHLAND 9 13 17 15 – 54
1977 ASHLAND 17 10 13 21 – 61