If it seems like we’ve been here before, well, we have. The stakes just happen to be sky-high this time with a spot in the state championship on the line Saturday afternoon when Ashland takes on Fort Thomas Highlands.
Highlands defeated Ashland 84-75 in the season opener in Fort Thomas on Jan. 4. The Tomcats were 8-for-28 from 3-point range and fell behind 18-4. That snapped the 33-game winning streak and put the undefeated season in the rearview mirror.
It was one of the pivot points of the season, according to coach Jason Mays, because it showed the Tomcats this was a new season. The friendly ghosts were gone.
Cole Villers scored 32 in the opener and Ashland fought back to get into the game. It was one of several key games against high-caliber competition that proved to the Tomcats they could play with anyone.
Sam Vinson scored 30 and Highlands was 8-for-19 on 3-pointers in that one.
THREE-FOR-ALL: Ashland was 10 of 17 and Highlands hit 11 of 18 from 3-point range in quarterfinal victories Friday night.
PLAY IT AGAIN: Ashland and Highlands have met only one other time in Sweet 16 history. The Tomcats dropped a 13-11 semifinal decision way back in 1924. That was four years before Ashland’s first boys state championship in 1928.
SWEET 16: This is the 16th time the Tomcats have reached the state semifinals and the first time since the 1996 team made it to the state championship game before falling to Paintsville.
Ashland has been six times since 1961. The Tomcats lost a heartbreaker that year against Ohio County. They fell in 1977 to Louisville Valley in the semifinals to end a 30-win season. The 96 team, of course, won its semifinal game to reach the finals against Paintsville.
The Tomcats also won the semifinal game in 1961 against Wheelwright en route to the state title and then won in 1962 before losing in the state championship game.
Ashland has an 8-7 record in semifinal appearances.
BRINGING THE HEAT: Ashland’s 80-44 victory over Boyle County in the quarterfinals was the biggest margin of victory in Tomcat history in the Sweet 16. The previous high was the 61 Tomcats 77-51 victory over Louisville Seneca.
Friday’s game brought out the mercy rule running clock before the 6-minute mark of the third quarter.
LONE FOOTBALL CHAMP: Ashland’s win over Boyle County also made the Tomcats the lone school still alive in the field that also had a football championship during the school years. Four schools came into the Sweet 16 with that football title already in their hip pocket. But only the Tomcats remain.
LISTEN UP: I listened to Dicky Martin a lot in Friday’s quarterfinals and it was well worth it even though he was ahead of the telecast by a few minutes. There was absolute delight in his voice calling the lopsided victory. He urged – make that begged – Ashland fans to show up Saturday afternoon.
Martin remembered back to 1961 when his father Dick – the VOICE of those Tomcats – called his mother and told her to get Dicky down here because “we’re going to win it.” Dicky was only seven years old but his father understand the importance of winning a state tournament. It hasn’t happened since.
“Please come support these kids,” Martin said Friday. “They’re playing their guts out for you. And I believe we’re going to win it.”
The semifinal game is at 2 p.m.. If you can’t make it down, watch it on nfhsnetwork.com. If you haven’t already subscribed, it’s still worth the $10.99 subscription fee for a month.