Clashing styles collide when 1961 Tomcats meet 1977 Tomcats

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.

Jim Harkins was a key player for the 1977 Tomcats.

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.”

Real life

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

‘When you’re up against the Tomcats you’re upside down’

ASHLAND, Ky. – When Joe Swartz ran onto the court before the 1962 Ashland Tomcats took on the 1971 Tomcats, he sent some good vibrations through the old Ashland High School gym with his famous cheer.

“When you’re up, you’re up,

when you’re down, you’re down;

when you’re up against the

Tomcats you’re upside down!”

The fans went crazy. That was all it took. This place was jacked-up. Their beloved 62 Tomcats are one of the forgotten teams even though they achieved more than almost any of them.


Their biggest problem? They came after the 61 Tomcats. It’s tough to follow the GOAT even if you still have the GOAT on the roster.

Despite 32 victories and a state runner-up finish, it’s never talked about as one of Ashland’s greatest teams. But they still had Larry Conley, maybe the best Tomcat of them all. Who else was instrumental in 68 wins, a state championship and state runnerup over two years?

Larry Conley’s rebounding was too much.

The 71 Tomcats were another team that’s not spoken of much even though they won 26 and reached the Sweet 16 quarterfinals. It was a team of great balance, well-coached by the venerable Harold Cole. This was the last of his three 16th Region championships in a row.

So everybody had a lot to prove when the 62 Tomcats hosted the 71 Tomcats. It was easy to see during the pregame warmups. Nobody had seen such intensity before a tipoff. The place was absolutely electric with the 1971 pep band playing “The Horse” and everybody was on their feet. It was a special sight to see for these teams. The game was bigger than most people imagined and both sides thought they were going to win.

The coaches in the game, Bob Wright for the 62 Tomcats and Harold Cole for the 71 Tomcats, both did nothing but win. They were alike in some ways and very different in others. Their success was what was demanded in those days.

The idea of Tomcats vs. Tomcats wasn’t easy for everybody.

Joe Swartz did a double-take when he saw the opponents jersey had Ashland on the front. But the fans in the stands on either side sure knew their favorite Tomcats. But it didn’t matter. He’d already done his part.

Now it was time to play.

Maybe the 71 Tomcats were too pumped up as they struggled out of the gate. The 62 Tomcats raced ahead 18-7 with Conley scoring seven, the last coming on an offensive rebound that would be a sign of things to come.

Rebounding proved to be a big difference in this one. The 62 Tomcats crashed the boards hard with Conley pulling down 17 himself, including seven offensive.

“Larry can play anywhere on the floor and do it well,” Wright said. “I’ve never seen a more complete player or a better rebounder. He knows how the ball is coming off the rim.”

Conley said it would look up through the net to determine which way the ball was going. His instincts were frightening.

But if the 62 Tomcats thought it was over after building they 11-point lead, they thought wrong.

The 71 Tomcats were a team of great balance and it showed up again. They began fighting back but another surge from the 62 Tomcats pushed the lead to as much as 13 points at 32-19 when David Hall scored off a Fastbreak.

The 62 Tomcats settled for a 37-26 lead at the half.

“We couldn’t keep them off the boards,” Cole said. “I knew we needed to make some adjustments at half. I wasn’t sure what we were going to do with Conley. He was so active and they knew to get the ball to him. He was hard to handle.”

The 71 Tomcats went to a 1-3-1 and made sure they knew where Conley was at all times. Meanwhile, on offense, they began chipping away at the deficit. It was down to 49-43 when they went on a 12-1 run to take their biggest lead at 55-50.

“I’m telling you, I don’t know what happened,” said 62 Tomcat Jim McKenzie, who scored 16. “We were cruising along and then all of the sudden we’re down five. How did that happen?”

It was two minutes into the fourth quarter when the 71 Tomcats seemed to gain control of the game. Then the 62 Tomcats took a timeout and Joe Swartz made a rare second appearance with his famous cheer.

“When you’re up you’re up,

when you’re down you’re down;

when you’re up against the

Tomcats you’re upside down!”

It was like a bomb went off in that place.

McKenzie caught fire from the corners, making the 1-3-1 ineffective. When they went back to man-to-man, Conley began taking over again.

Before anybody knew it, the teams were dead even at 60 with 2:56 remaining.

Gerry Whitlow’s basket at the 36-second mark was the last score for the 71 Tomcats, who turned cold just like that.

Larry Fairchild’s drive had put the 62 Tomcats in front for good at 62-60 as they finished the game on a 9-2 run. Conley made five consecutive free throws after Whitlow’s basket cut the lead to 64-62.

Conley was the dominating factor with 27 points and 17 rebounds. The 62 Tomcats held a whopping 51-25 rebounding advantage, and that included 19 offensive rebounds.

“That 1-3-1 was giving us fits but Jim broke it open for us with those corner bombs,” Conley said. “I’m not sure we’d have won it without him getting hot.”

Whitlow had 12 points and three rebounds and Paul Hixson collected 11 points and six assists.

The last time anybody saw big Joe Swartz that night he had his arms around two cheerleaders leaving the gymnasium.

His 62 Tomcats had indeed turned things upside down, but  everything was sunny-side-up for him.

Real life

Ashland’s 1971 team was 26-4 and were regional champion. They advanced to the quarterfinals of the Sweet 16 before losing 72-62 to Louisville Central. It was coach Harold Cole’s second-winningest team.

Ashland’s 1962 team finished 32-6, won the regional title and then surprisingly to everybody but them played their way into the championship game. They came close, falling 62-58 to heavily favored St. Xavier for what would have been a second consecutive state title.

1971 ASHLAND (62) – Hixson 4-7 3-4 11, Salyer 1-2 1-2 3, Lynch 4-11 1-2 9, Farrow 3-10 1-2 7, Whitlow 4-11 4-6 12, Kleykamp 0-1 0-0 0, Williams 2-7 0-0 4, Griffith 1-5 4-4 6, Dodd 2-2 0-0 4, Hall 2-3 2-2 6, Brown 0-2 0-0 0. FG: 23-61. FT: 16-22. Rebounds: 25 (Hixson 3, Salyer 2, Lynch 5, Farrow 5, Whitlow 3, Williams 3, Griffith 5, Dodd 1. Assists: 14 (Hixson 6, Salyer 1, Lynch 1, Kleykamp 3, Williams 2, Dodd 1. PF: 23. Turnovers: 12.

1962 ASHLAND (69) – Stewart 1-3 0-0 2, Johnson 2-8 4-5 8, Fairchild 3-8 0-0 6, McKenzie 6-14 4-4 16, Conley 9-18 9-12 27, Hall 2-5 0-2 4, Barrow 1-4 2-3 4, Turpin 0-1 0-2 0, Yancey 1-1 0-0 2, Wheeler 0-1 0-2 0. FG: 25-63. FT: 19-30. Rebounds: 51 (Stewart 2, Johnson 4, Fairchild 10, McKenzie 10, Conley 17, Hall 1, Barrow 3, Turpin 1, Yancey 1, Wheeler 2). Assists: 10 (Johnson 4, Fairchild 2, McKeiznie 1, Conley 3). PF: 21. Turnovers: 21.

1971 ASHLAND 13         13         21         15         –              62

1962 ASHLAND 20         17         13         19         –              69




Wild game, wilder finish between 1961, 1928 Tomcats

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.”

61 Tomcat Coach Bob Wright gets carried off the floor.

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.”

Top guns

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

GOAT debate: Champion 1961 Tomcats and 1928 Tomcats take it to court

ASHLAND, Ky. – The debate has raged for years in Ashland about which Tomcat basketball champion was the greatest of all time.

Was it the undefeated state and national champion 1928 Tomcats or those dominating 1961 Tomcats? Even the many who saw both teams play couldn’t decide. It was a coin flip. Or an argument. They both deserved the title of being the GOAT (greatest of all time).

During the 1961 season, even before those Tomcats were crowned state champions, the newspaper put together a group to rank the teams. They said No.1 belonged to the 1928 wonder boys who went 37-0. Winning the national tournament, which stopped in 1930, may have given them the edge. The best way to decide was if they could play each other but that wasn’t possible.

Until now.

The 1961 Tomcats, one of the greatest in state history.

It’s time to decide it on the court with a two-game simulation series between these Tomcat championship teams. Here’s some good news: There will be no travel involved since both of them played in the same gym. Warning to the fire marshal: There’s going to be more people in the gym than you’re going to like or is probably legal.

“They’ve talked about what would happen if we played since the day we came back from the state tournament in 1961,” said 61 Tomcat coach Bob Wright. “It’s funny because it’s not the players. They have so much respect for each other. These rabid Tomcat fans always want something to argue over. So I say, let’s play it and see what happens.”

The first game will be played with the rules from 1928 with jump balls after every made basket and no over-and-back penalty – players are free to roam anywhere on the court. There is no 10-second count to get it across the halfcourt line since there is no halfcourt line.

“This is going to be strange,” admitted Tomcat star Larry Conley. “But we’re ready. We’ll play it their way or any way. I just want to settle this thing once and for all.”

You’d have thought the championship of the world was being staged based on attendance and interest. They came two hours before tipoff and lined up in the parking lot outside. It was a sight to behold. There were a couple of fights as people pushed and shoved to keep their place in line. Attendance was going to be cut off at 1,500, but there was nearly that many already in line with cars coming down Lexington Avenue. Somehow scalpers already had a handful of tickets and they were going for $2 – a hefty fee in 1928.

Fans were allowed in about an hour before tipoff, racing to seats on their respective sides of the floor. The end zone seats were being reserved for dignitaries. The governor himself was supposed to make an appearance. That would be Flem D. Sampson, a Republican, who was the 42nd governor of the Commonwealth. That’s how big this game had become.

As the teams began warming up, they also started sizing up each other. That was easier for the 28 Tomcats as they looked at some tall timber on the other end of the floor.

The 61 Tomcats were big, much bigger than anybody they had faced. But don’t take that wrong. These 28 Tomcats weren’t afraid of anything and that included the mighty 61 Tomcats.

Within 15 minutes of the doors opening, there wasn’t a seat remaining in the gym. There was a dustup in one corner with a lot of yelling and finger-pointing, but ordered was quickly restored. They found out later it had something to do with the local bookie, who was trying to set a line. Impossible on this one. Just pick ’em.

No game was bigger. It was the Super Bowl of Tomcat basketball and the fanfare that came with it was magnificent aside from Gov. Sampson’s 10-minute speech before tipoff. Nobody seemed interested in anything that wasn’t basketball. A quartet from the 28 Glee Club choir sang the national anthem.

Both teams finished warming up and went to the downstairs locker room for last-minute instructions. It was kind of weird for the 61 Tomcats who, for this game were the visitors on the scoreboard and dressed in the visitor dressing room. There wasn’t much difference. The showers didn’t work well in either one of them.

Jimmy Anderson, the 1928 Tomcat coach, had been asked hundreds of times about what would have happened if these teams ever met. He was always complimentary of both teams, a true gentleman.

“I cheered for those boys, too,” he said. “A remarkable team for their day. I’ve never seen passing like that. The only team that comes even close was that 2020 team we played last week.”

The 1928-2020 two-game series, matching the only undefeated Tomcat teams in history, ended in a draw with each winning on the other’s floor.

And now this matchup was carrying some of the same intensity. Ellis Johnson, one of the 28 stars, wished his son, Ken, a member of the 61 team, well after warmups. Ken Johnson was a sophomore on the 61 team but didn’t see much action.

“We’ve talked a lot about this game and what would happen,” Ellis Johnson said of conversations with his son. “I guess we’re about to find out.”

The game was loud and it was full. The State Police had escorted Gov. Sampson in while the teams were in the downstairs dressing rooms. When they came back onto the floor it was so loud that it made your hair hurt.

“I guess when the governor of Kentucky comes to watch you play basketball, it’s a pretty big deal,” Wright said.

The game tipped off but the noise level never dropped. Not once. It was a constant roar.

The teams went back and forth with Harold Sergent’s driving layup making it an 8-4 advantage for the biggest lead of the first half. The 28 Tomcats led 20-19 at intermission and everybody in the gym was buzzing. Whatever size and strength edge the 61 Tomcats thought they had, seemed to have disappeared. What they found facing them was a raw-boned team that was just as strong and savvy on how to play their style of basketball.

“We could never get any momentum going because of the jump ball thing,” Sergent said. “Daggone it, we’d score and they have to jump it up. And I don’t know how many times we got our hand on the tip, but they ended up with the ball. I tell you what, too, Gene Strother and Ellis can flat-out play the game.”

The game settled into a defensive war in the third quarter. Only 11 points were scored by the two teams combined as both of them took advantage of a passing exhibition. It was hard to follow where the ball was going. There were no-look, behind-the-back and other passes that had the fans standing and cheering and wanting more.

But when the quarter ended, the 28 Tomcats had built on their lead to 26-24 when Strother, who led all scorers with 13, hit a layup off a rifle pass from Darrell Darby.

“I never saw it coming,” said 61 Tomcat Steve Cram. “It was in his hands and in the basket just like that,” he said, snapping his fingers.

Dale Sexton, who came off the 61 bench, put his team ahead 31-30 for the first time since the end of the first quarter. He added two more big baskets in the fourth quarter, too.

“Dale gave us a big boost there,” Wright said. “That was six big points. In a game like this, with the pace like it was, any basket was big. Three of them was a rally.”

The teams exchanged leads two more times and with the 61 Tomcat leading 35-34, Johnson got open for a two-handed set shot from the left wing that swished to make it 36-35 with only 22 seconds remaining. Gene Smith successfully tipped the ball to Conley on the jump and Wright called a timeout.

Strategy was set with Cram inbounding, but the play never materialized. Phipps came out of nowhere for a steal and began to run out the time. Sergent was in full pursuit of Phipps but his dribble hit a dead spot on the floor and he had to reach down for it. Sergent caught up and was able to back-tip the ball to Conley, who gathered it in and sped down the floor with time running out. It was a perfect 3-on-1 fastbreak – just what the doctor ordered for a team that made a living that way. The 28 Tomcats never knew what hit them. A dizzying display of passing, where the ball never touched the floor, ended with Bob Hilton banking in the game-winning shot off the fan-shaped backboard as the horn sounded. It was over and it was a stunning 37-36 victory for the 61 Tomcats.

“I don’t think we settled anything here tonight except to say these are two outstanding basketball teams with great players,” Anderson said. “We look forward to the rematch.”

In the other dressing room, Wright lit up a stogie he’d been given before the game.

“Sweet victory!” he said. “Tremendous play by Sarge to get that backtip. That last fastbreak was a thing of beauty. It was like the Mona Lisa. They ran it like it was taught.”

What about the rematch game with the more uptempo style?

“Get your tickets early,” Wright said. “It’s going to be a barnburner.”

Real life

Ashland’s 1961 team is regarded as one of the greatest champions in Sweet 16 history. They finished 36-1 and every game in the state tournament was won by double figures. All five starters earned Division I college scholarships.

Ashland’s 1928 team was state and national champion with a 37-0 record under coach Jimmy Anderson. They are one of only two unbeaten teams in Tomcat history, the other coming this year.

1961 ASHLAND (37) – Hilton 1-5 0-0 2, Cram 1-4 0-0 2, Conley 6-8 0-0 12, Sergent 2-6 6-7 10, Smith 1-3 0-0 2, Sexton 3-4 0-1 6, Daniel 1-4 1-2 3, Fairchild 0-0 0-0 0. FG: 15-34 FT: 7-10. Rebounds: 25 (Hilton 3, Cram 3, Conley 6, Sergent 2, Smith 7, Sexton 2, Daniel 1, Fairchild 1). Assists: 8 (Hilton 3, Cram 3, Conley 2). PF: 15. Turnovers: 7.

1928 ASHLAND (36) – Johnson 2-5 4-8 8, Phipps 1-4 1-1 3, Darby 2-6 0-0 4, Fullerton 0-5 0-0 0, Strother 4-6 5-5 13, Riffe 1-3 0-0 2, Barney 1-1 0-0 2, Hemlepp 1-1 0-0 2, Allen 1-1 0-0 2. FG: 14-30. FT: 10-14. Rebounds: 20 (Johnson 5, Phipps 1, Darby 7, Fullerton 4, Strother 3). Assists: 8 (Johnson 4, Darby 3). PF: 10. Turnovers: 6.

1961 ASHLAND        8         11         5         13       –         37
1928 ASHLAND        7         13         6         10       –        36