ASHLAND, Ky. – Lest we so quickly forget, it was the 2019 Ashland Tomcats who sparked the current basketball revival.
Those Tomcats, under the reins of veteran coach Jason Mays in his first high school coaching experience, caught fire late in the season and stunned everyone by winning the 16th Region Tournament and then even a game in the Sweet Sixteen before bowing out.
It had been 17 years, the longest drought in the proud history of Ashland basketball, since the Tomcats had last won the regional title. They finished with a pedestrian 19-16 record but it may have flipped the switch to bringing Tomcat basketball back to the forefront.
“I’ll always love what this team gave the Tomcat program,” Mays said. “Nobody expected us to be holding that regional championship trophy and going to Rupp Arena. These guys helped me better understand how to coach players this age, after all of those years where I coached college players, and I’ll always appreciate them for that.”
That being said, they deserved the opportunity to play it again and this time it was against one of coach Paul Patterson’s four regional champions – the 1978 Tomcats. Like all of his teams, the 78 Tomcats were built on tough, man-to-man defense. It was the kind of defense that made you wake up in the middle of a night in a cold sweat.
“They make me break out in hives and I’m just coaching against them,” Mays said.
The 2019 Tomcats, once they found their way and got everybody healthy, became a free-wheeling offense that loved to aim and fire. They played in a style much like the undefeated 2020 team and, no wonder, since many of the same players from that team were the main players in 2019.
So it was going to be a battle of defense vs. offense.
The 3-point play was going to be part of the game since the 2019 Tomcats were the host on the scoreboard. But don’t expect the offensive-conservative 78 Tomcats to take many shots from outside 12 feet.
“Coach Patterson likes the high percentage shot, let’s just say that,” said point guard Greg Swift. “Anything outside of 5 feet wasn’t high percentage. It wasn’t that we were conservative, it was more about running the offense until that high percentage shot was available. But everything we did was predicated on playing good defense.”
Players who didn’t play good defense didn’t play long with Patterson.
“You win games with defense,” he said. “Any other questions?”
The 78 Tomcats followed one of the most successful teams in Ashland history. The 77 Tomcats won 30 games and reached the state semifinals. Most figured this was the season to knock Ashland off its perch. Of course, that didn’t happen. Another defensive giant emerged and the Tomcats won a third (of what would be five) consecutive regional titles.
But this challenge would be different, especially with the 3-point play as part of the strategy.
The 2019 Tomcats led 16-10 with freshman Cole Villers scoring five points late in the first quarter before the 78 Tomcats found their footing. They scored the last five points of the quarter and trailed only 16-15.
“It’d have been nice to build on that six-point lead but we had three straight bad possessions right there,” Mays said. “We got in a hurry on offense. It was so tough to get any open shots against them. We forced a couple.”
The 19 Tomcats were able to maintain a four-point at 33-29 through halftime, mostly thanks to Devaunte Robinson’s 14 points.
The game was tied at 33, 35 and 37 when a three-point play from Justin Bradley put the 2019 Tomcats in front 40-37.
“Scoring baskets for either one of us was like pulling teeth,” Mays said.
The rest of the third quarter belonged to the 78 Tomcats, who went on a 12-2 run to lead 47-42 entering the last eight minutes. The 19 Tomcats were held to nine points in the quarter.
“The defense ramped up and Donnie Allen made some big plays,” Patterson said.
Allen scored off a nice assist from Greg McCauley and then took a charge. He scored again on the next possession to put the 78 Tomcats in front for the first time in the second half at 43-42.
When Dirk Anders scored on a putback to begin the fourth quarter and make it 49-42, the road became that much tougher for the 2019 Tomcats.
However, four consecutive points from Robinson, who had been mostly quiet in the second half, pulled the 2019 Tomcats within 61-58 with 1:28 remaining.
Ethan Hudson, who finished with 15 points, drilled a 15-footer to make it 64-60 with 45 seconds remaining but the 78 Tomcats held them scoreless the rest of the way and recorded a 68-60 victory.
“This was a good one,” Patterson said. “Our defense set the tone. That charge that Donnie took stands out in my mind as the play of the game.”
Tom Welch played big all night for the 78 Tomcats as he finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds. Swift scored 15 with five assists.
“The big guy hurt us,” Mays said of Welch. “He was really banging in there. We didn’t have a good answer for him.”
Robinson scored 22 and led an 8-for-16 performance from behind the 3-point line. He was 4-for-6 on triples.
“We just didn’t shoot enough of them,” Mays said. “Give Coach Patterson credit. He was ready in stepping up a good defense to limit our looks from there.”
But the 2019 Tomcats shooting 50 percent from behind the arc didn’t excite Patterson, who said, “You don’t win games giving up percentages like that. Disappointing. We’ll have to work on that.”
The 2019 Tomcats came into the regional tournament as the district runners-up but promptly surprised Lewis County by surviving a last-second shot and then stunned favorite Elliott County in the semifinals. A win over rival Boyd County in the final completed the sweep and then they won their Sweet 16 opener against Owensboro before losing to eventual champion Louisville Trinity.
The 1978 Tomcats won a third consecutive regional title by edging Boyd County in the championship game. Covington Holmes overwhelmed the Tomcats in the Sweet 16 opener.
1978 ASHLAND (68) – McCauley 2-7 0-0 4, Swift 7-13 1-3 15, Cobb 5-10 1-3 11, Allen 5-9 2-2 12, Welch 7-11, 4-6 18, Henderson 0-1 0-0 0, Anders 1-4 2-2 4, Withrow 2-2 0-0 4. FG: 29-57. FT: 10-16. 3FG: 0-0. Rebounds: 26 (McCauley 5, Swift 1, Cobb 2, Allen 7, Welch 8, Anders 3). Assists: 14 (McCauley 3, Swift 3, Cobb 1, Allen 2, Welch 1, Henderson 2, Anders 1). PF: 14. Turnovers: 11.
2019 ASHLAND (60) – Sellars 1-5 0-0 2, Hudson 6-11 0-0 15, Bradley 2-8 1-1 5, Robinson 8-16 2-2 22, Mays 2-5 5-6 9, Villers 2-7 1-1 5, Atkins 1-4 0-0 2, Phillips 0-2 0-0 0. FG: 22-58. FT: 9-10. 3FG: 7-16 (Hudson 3-4, Bradley 0-1, Sellars 0-3, Villers 0-2, Robinson 4-6).
1978 ASHLAND 15 14 18 21 – 68
2019 ASHLAND 16 17 9 18 – 60