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Sweet 16 memories
With the state tournament tipping off in Rupp Arena on Wednesday afternoon, here are 10 memories that stand out for me from the Sweet 16. Five are Anderson County memories and five from just going to the tourney.
Top 5 from around the state
Edmonson County, 1976. This was probably the team that saved the single-class state tournament. For several years, the Louisville schools had dominated the tourney, winning six of the previous seven – Owensboro was the other – and the perception was growing strong that a small town team from out in the state could not win it. When Edmonson got to Freedom Hall, no one had heard of them and it opened with a rather unimpressive win over Betsy Layne. But after dispatching Harrison County and Shelby County, competing in its first year following the consolidation with Shelbyville High, the Wildcats were not to be denied. They routed Christian County in the final.
Several years ago, then-Anderson County school superintendent Sonny Fentress introduced me to Davenport at the Sweet 16. Like many others, I told him his team was the one that saved the Sweet 16.
Henry Clay-Carlisle County, 1983. As I sat in Rupp Arena that Saturday night, I watched two teams battle in a contest that was excruciating with every dribble. A small school from far western Kentucky – it is bounded by the Mississippi River – Carlisle County had probably fewer than 400 fans at the game but the Comets stayed with big-city Henry Clay through regulation, overtime and a second overtime. Only when Henry Clay's Greg Bates scored on a tip-in with one second left in the third overtime was a state champion crowned, 35-33.
Chris Lofton, 2003. An unbelievable performance, especially against Ballard in the championship game, led Mason County to its first state title.
Clay County and Richie Farmer. Those mountain boys were small, they weren't exceptionally quick but how they could play the game! The beauty of their offense was its simplicity, but they executed with such precision that few could stop them in 1987 and 1988. Only when Allan Houston and Ballard prevailed over a dead-tired Clay team in 1988 was a repeat title for one of Kentucky's most popular teams stopped.
Glasgow, 1968. Nothing spectacular about the Scotties winning it all that year, but it was my first Sweet 16. Glasgow beat Seneca that year in the finals.
Five Anderson County memories
Jimmy Dan Conner's 3-point play. In the 1971 semifinals against heavily-favored Central, Conner scored on a turnaround with eight seconds left. Fouled on the shot, Conner sank the free throw to send Aanerson to the state championship game. I also distinctly remember the tension as we left Freedom Hall that day. It was so thick, you could cut it in the air.
The roar of the crowd in the state final. If you look at the final score, Male 83, Anderson Co. 66, you would not think the 1971 final was that close. But early in the fourth quarter, Anderson, a school with fewer than 400 students, went ahead of big-city Male, 60-58. Of the 18,000 in Freedom Hall that night, about 17,5000 were screaming for the Bearcats.
The crowds. I can't say that Anderson has the best crowds of anyone that makes the Sweet 16, but I can say Anderson is right there with any other. In 1971, Anderson fans pretty much took over Freedom Hall. In '74, the crowd was very good, although not like three years before. In 1997 and 2009, one end of Rupp Arena was a sea of red shirts. I have a photo from 2009 in our office.
Keith Lawson. Keith was my classmate at Anderson County High School. In 1974, we took on Louisville Central, the top team in the nation, and a team that some believe is the best to ever play in the state. All five of the Yellow Jackets signed to play Division I ball and center Robert Miller went on to Cincinnati, then played in the NBA. I think we all knew we had no chance.
Keith Lawson was a gentle soul, but got tired of hearing about Bob Miller and went out having the game of his life in the Sweet 16. He scored 24 points that night even though we lost by a huge margin. The WHAS broadcast of the game was delayed because of the Kentucky Colonels' game, but back at the Holiday Inn on Hurstbourne Lane, we got a chance to listen to Cawood Ledford tell everyone, “This Lawson is going to be a good one.”
Seeing Keith's eyes light up and his huge smile was priceless.
The McDowell game, 1971. People remember the 1971 Anderson team for getting to the championship game, but often forget how close the Bearcats were to being upset in the second round of the tournament by a big and rugged team from McDowell, located in Floyd County. The Dare Devils – one of the great nicknames in Kentucky hoops history – led most of the game behind guard Glenn Turner, who went on to play at Morehead State. The 6-11 center on that McDowell team, Steve Smith, was a backup on N.C. State's 1974 NCAA champs, too. A great play by David Ruggles in overtime spurred the Bearcats into the semifinals against Central.