ASHLAND, Ky. – The 1990-94 Tomcat All-Stars looked to be home free.
They may have already started thinking about the next round of the Tomcat Shootout. The 90-94 team led the stunned 1995-90 by 20 points at halftime and by 23 points with 4:50 remaining in the third quarter. Rob Lynch’s long jumper made it 80-57.
Public address announcer Chuck Rist was looking for his “Celebration” disc at the scorer’s table.
But basketball can be a funny game. Better hold that song, Chuck. Maybe find “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”
The lead was double figures at 97-84 with 4:35 to play, but the 95-99 Tomcats were coming. Kyle Umberger and Darrell Arbaugh were banging inside and the momentum had clearly swung.
Coach Jeff Hall had already used all of his timeouts to blunt the rally but nothing seemed to be working.
“I was just hoping we could hang on,” he admitted later.
Fifteen consecutive points later and the 95-99 Tomcats had done the unthinkable and regained the lead at 98-97 when Michael Lynch drilled a 15-footer with cousin Rob’s hand in his face.
The crowd was going bonkers, the loudest anybody had ever heard them. The locked down chairs were coming unbolted from all the stomping. The stands were literally shaking. The lid was about to come off James A. Anderson Gymnasium.
Tomcat radio voice Dicky Martin was speechless. Can you imagine that? It’s true. There was dead air after Lynch put one in over his cousin. It the 15-0 run that nobody saw coming.
“I was flabbergasted,” he said. “How could they make that kind of a comeback? These two teams are just great. But I wouldn’t have given the 95-99 a chance in million when it was 13 points with four minutes to play. This was a Tomcat classic.”
But it wasn’t over. The teams were tied at 101 with 45 unbelievable seconds to play.
It was the third game of the series with the winner moving on to the quarterfinals of the Tomcat Shootout and both of them wanted it bad because they each thought there was a good chance of winning it all.
An incredible start, though, made it look like it was the 90-94 team’s game to win in a walkaway.
Hall used a different strategy with trying to play more of a two-man game with Thomas and Rob Lynch. He kept the sharpshooting Lynch on the perimeter and posted up Thomas down loan. The 95-99 Tomcats were willing to take a chance on Lynch, who missed 10 of 13 shots in Game 2.
But he found the range on the way to 25 points, making 10 of 13 attempts. Meanwhile, Thomas got his shots too and the 95-99 Tomcats’ plan was to be more physical with him. He made 8 of 11 free throws and pulled down 11 rebounds while scoring a game-high 27 points.
The two-man game combined for 52 points. That allowed Nathan Kirk to collect 11 points and 10 rebounds and Jason Strader, always the playmaker, had nine points and 12 assists.
The game was fairly tight for a quarter but the 90-94 Tomcats had put up 30 points. Then they matched that total in the second quarter and led 60-40 at the half.
Coach Wayne Breeden’s voice could be heard through locked doors and it sounded like a few items were being thrown too.
“It was kind of scary in there,” Umberger said. “I’ve never seen him so mad.”
They didn’t want to face that wrath again. So the comeback started. The deficit was a manageable 81-68 after three quarters.
“That’s when we knew we could win it,” Michael Lynch said. “We wanted to get it under double figures halfway through the last quarter.”
The 15-0 run saw the normally strong floor game of the 90-94 Tomcats begin to erode. Eventually, Hall put Ryan Robinson in to help Strader break the press that was causing turnover after turnover.
“They forgot everything they were ever taught and even during the timeouts, I could read panic on their faces,” Hall said. “I mean, these are great ballplayers and they were literally falling apart.”
The 95-99 Tomcats caught them and then took the lead and then fell behind again before Michael Lynch’s clutch shot evened it again at 101.
Thomas made two free throws for a 103-101 lead and Chris Lynch set up on the block and drove in for a basket that tied it again at 103 with only 10 seconds remaining.
Hall was out of timeouts, having used them to blunt the rally. Dicky Martin was standing up calling the game he was so excited and the normally collected Rist kept fumbling around for the song that was going to fit the ending. Everybody in the place was on their feet.
Jason Strader hurried it down the floor. He was looking for Thomas but he wasn’t in his usual spot on a block. He had slipped to the deep corner with Chris Lynch trailing him. He gathered in the high pass, stopped and launched a shot with the 6-7 Lynch rushing at him, hand outstretched. He looked like he got a finger on the ball but it didn’t throw off the trajectory much. Thomas was a foot in front of the 3-point line at the end of the floor closest to the lobby when he let it fly with the game in the balance.
The doorways were full of people watching. Everybody’s eyes followed the ball as it left Thomas’ hand, ticked off Lynch’s finger and then rattled back and forth on the rim three times before dropping through for a 105-103 victory.
As the 90-94 Tomcats rushed the floor and breathed a sigh of relief, the crushed 95-99 Tomcats fell to their knees in defeat, pounding the gym floor. A remarkable comeback had ended with a devastating loss.
“You can’t console them when they lose a game like this,” said Breeden, whose team outscored the 90-94 Tomcats 63-45 in the second half. “They showed what they’re about with that comeback. I’m proud of them.”
Michael Lynch scored 22 and Umberger had 19 points and nine rebounds. Tate Tolbert, playing strong again at the point guard, had 15 points and 10 assists. Arbaugh collected 11 points and 15 rebounds.
“Incredible game,” Breeden said. “I have to go find Marty and shake his hand.”
Thomas was named the series MVP after scoring 43 and 27 in the last two games.
“I’ll take Marty Thomas or Robby Lynch shooting from anywhere at any time,” Hall said. “But did we ever almost choke that game or what?”
Rist cued up Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” as a salute to both teams and Dicky settled down after smoking half a pack of cigarettes.
Next up: The 2000-2004 Tomcats vs. the 2005-2009 Tomcats.
1995-99 ASHLAND (103) – Tolbert 6-20 3-4 15, M.Lynch 9-21 2-3 22, Umberger 8-14 2-4 19, C.Lynch 4-11 4-4 12, Arbaugh 5-7 1-2 11, Estep 2-3 0-0 4, Barrow 2-7 2-2 6, Cooksey 2-4 0-0 4, Stakely 3-7 0-0 7, Johnson 0-1 1-2 1, B.Strader 1-1 0-0 2. FG: 42-96. FT: 15-21. 3FG: 4-18 (Tolbert 0-4, M.Lynch 2-8, Umberger 1-1, C.Lynch 0-1, Stakely 1-2, Cooksey 0-2). Rebounds: 46 (Tolbert 2, M.Lynch 2, Umberger 9, C.Lynch 10, Arbaugh 15, Estep 2, Barrow 2, Cooksey 4. Assists: 27 (Tolbert 10, M.Lynch 1, C.Lynch 2, Arbaugh 4, Estep 2, Barrow 2, Stakely 1, Strader 5). PF: 18. Turnovers: 14.
1990-94 ASHLAND (105) – J.Strader 3-11 3-3 9, Young 3-8 0-0 7, Thomas 9-18 8-11 27, R.Lynch 10-13 5-5 25, Kirk 5-10 1-2 11, Keeton 3-10 1-1 9, Robinson 2-7 1-1 5, Greene 2-3 1-2 5, Gray 2-6 0-0 4, Smith 1-2 0-0 3, Salyers 0-3 0-0 0. FG: 40-91. FT: 20-25. 3FG: 5-25 (Young 1-6, Thomas 1-2, R.Lynch 0-2, Kirk 0-3, Keeton 2-4, Robinson 0-2, Greene 0-1, Gray 0-2, Smith 1-1, Salyers 0-2). Rebounds: 53 (J.Strader 4, Young 5, Thomas 11, R.Lynch 5, Kirk 10, Keeton 6, Robinson 5, Greene 4, Gray 1, Smith 1). PF: 20. Turnovers: 17.
1995-99 ASHLAND 25 15 28 35 – 103
1990-94 ASHLAND 30 30 21 24 – 105