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It all started very simply. There was no fanfare when basketball made its way into Anderson County.
Nearly 100 years later, an estimated 7,000 red-clad Anderson County basketball fans piled into Rupp Arena in Lexington to watch the Bearcats play in the Kentucky High School state tournament. In between, the sport's hold on the county has been strong. And the county's influence on the sport became widely known around the state's borders.
But it all apparently started when Susan Bond Rutherford just wanted to share a sport she was introduced to while a student at the University of Kentucky and formed a couple of girls' teams at Kavanaugh High School in the 1911-12 school year.
That is the first record of the sport being played within the borders of Anderson County.
Those teams apparently played against each other and there is record of them playing in a tournament in Shelbyville, according to local historian Jack Birdwhistell.
“Since Mrs. Rutherford and several of the players were still around in 1956, this appears to be reliable information. W.J. Smith recalls hearing that Susan Bond learned about 'basket ball' while a student in Lexington. Determined to bring the sport to Kavanaugh School, she borrowed the money to build an outdoor court behind the school on Woodford Street. Admission charges to the girls' games, played at the old Opera House on Court Street, enabled her to pay off the loan,” Birdwhistell wrote in a timeline he has created about the sport's growth in Anderson County.
A year later Kavanaugh fielded a team for boys, within a couple of years, Lawrenceburg High was also suiting up teams and the county was hooked. By 1913, The Anderson News was advertising games to be played in the Opera House.
The game had been invented 20 years before its arrival at Kavanaugh when Dr. James Naismith, who had been instructed to come up with a game to keep track athletes in shape during the rough winters at Springfield, Mass. Even though the game was much different than the high-flying acrobatics of the modern era, it still caught on quickly.
The University of Kentucky fielded its first team in 1903 and the sport probably caught on with people like Susan Bond Rutherford just taking their knowledge of an exciting game back to their hometowns.
In 1916, Centre College put on an invitational state tournament at Danville, bringing together the best teams from around the state. The Kentucky High School Athletic Association lists a semi-finalist in the 1917 tourney as Lawrenceburg, but Birdwhistell says that was actually Kavanaugh, since the Lawrenceburg High team was playing in a tournament in Bardstown at the same time.
The Lawrenceburg team defeated Hopkinsville in the first round of the 1917 tournament before losing to eventual state champion Owensboro in the semifinals. The Kentucky High School Athletic Association took over the tournament the following year with Kavanaugh participating.
In 1920, both local high schools were part of the state tournament, but Kavanaugh is listed as Anderson County in the KHSAA records, but the school went by both names for a brief period. Kavanaugh defeated Carrollton and Owensboro before losing to Ashland in the semifinals.
It would be the first of many long runs by local schools in the tournament that evolved into today's Sweet 16.
Lawrenceburg's run in 1928
The Lawrenceburg High basketball team of 1928 made a huge splash during the 1928 state tournament. After winning the 11th Region, the Bulldogs advanced all the way to the state semi-finals, where they lost to Carr Creek.
A team from the mountains that captured the state's fancy with nearly every boy in the school on the team, Carr Creek had gotten to the state despite not having a gym. Carr Creek would eventually lose to Ashland in a four-overtime final that was long considered a classic.
Kavanaugh gets 30 seconds from glory
Just two years after Lawrenceburg's run, Kavanaugh came closer than any Anderson County team in history to winning a KHSAA state championship.
According to a story that appeared in the Lexington Herald, then was reprinted in the March 19, 1942 edition of The Anderson News, with 30 seconds left, Kavanaugh led by four points and started celebrating.
Corinth, now part of Grant County High School, somehow scored six points in 30 seconds – this was in the days of the center jump after each basket – and pulled the impossible upset.
In a strange twist of irony, Dave Lawrence would eventually teach at Kavanaugh and his brother, Deward, played for the Tigers.
Kavanaugh would return to the state tournament in 1931 and 1933 with stellar guard Ralph Carlisle being recognized as the state's leading scorer in 1933.
Kavanaugh and Lawrenceburg play one for the ages
History is full of “What ifs?”
Kavanaugh almost did not make it out of the district tournament in 1930, needing an incredible seven overtimes to outlast its crosstown rival, Lawrenceburg on March 8, 1930. The game was played in Frankfort and was tied at 20 at the end of regulation.
Both teams scored one point in the third overtime, before Kavanaugh, coached by the legendary Earle Jones, put it away with seven points in the seventh overtime to win 28-21.
Only one other game in Kentucky history has lasted longer.
But Kavanaugh's other claim to fame was its connection to University of Kentucky basketball. From 1927-1941, at least one Kavanaugh graduate suited up for the Wildcats. Two, Paul McBrayer, who grew up on Ninevah Road, and Aggie Sale, of Stringtown, were All-Americans with Sale being name the Helms Foundation National Player of the year in 1933.
Another player, Carlisle, also of the Ninevah area, was an All-Southeastern Conference performer.
When a jersey was hung from the rafters of Rupp Arena in his honor during the 1997 season, joining Carlisle and Sale, longtime Kentucky equipment manager Bill Keightley, Mr. Wildcat, was proud to note that more from Kavanaugh were honored than any other high school in the world.
However, in what many call an injustice, McBrayer is the only UK All-American from before the year 2000 to not be so honored.
“I think you can honestly say that from about 1925 to about 1936, you could say that Anderson County was the basketball capital of Kentucky,” Birdwhistell says.