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McBrayer's admonition might have spurred upset

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By John Herndon

Jack Upchurch still remembers the warning he received on Feb. 10, 1968.

"I had played college basketball at Eastern (Kentucky) under coach (Paul) McBrayer," recalls the former Anderson County High School coach, who was in the first stop of what turned out to be a 33-year coaching career. "That afternoon, my brother had seen coach McBrayer and he had a message for me."

That night, Upchurch would be leading the Bearcats against Shelby County, ranked anywhere from first to fourth in the state, and coached by Herky Rupp, the son of Kentucky legend Adolph Rupp, with whom McBrayer had had a long standing feud.

"Coach McBrayer had sent word, 'If you let that Herky Rupp beat you, I am going to disown you," Upchurch says with a laugh. "That's not exactly his words because there were a lot of expletives when Coach Rupp and Coach McBrayer talked about each other."

Whether McBrayer's admonition meant anything when the game tipped off, no one knows. What is on the record, though, is that on that magical Saturday night in Lawrenceburg, Anderson took down one of the favorites for a state championship, 86-82. We could not locate the actual polls for that week but some swear that Shelby was ranked no. 1 at the time. The game story that appeared in The Anderson News said Shelby was fourth.

Forty years later, it really doesn't matter what the exact number was, just that, as far as we can tell, those Rockets were the highest ranked team to ever taste defeat in Lawrenceburg.

(Anderson did upset no. 2 Central in the 1971 Sweet 16, but that game was in Louisville's Freedom Hall.)

And, unbeknownst to those involved at the time, it might have set a bit of a stage for what is now one of Kentucky's best high school basketball rivalries.

"We had played Henry Clay the night before and lost on a last second shot," says Lawrenceburg CPA Tom Smith, who was a sophomore reserve on that Bearcat team. "Henry Clay had beat us in the 11th Region (tournament) the year before and had also beat us the previous November in the CKC football championship game. In many ways, they were a bigger rival than Shelby."

"It was not the rivalry it is now," adds John McWilliams, who had the game of his career that night, scoring 22 points and pulling down 16 rebounds. "We were in the 11th Region but played Shelby and Shelbyville from the Eighth. Harrodsburg, Frankfort and Woodford County were our big rivals. then."

Still it was Shelby, just two years removed from a state championship, the home of Mike Casey, who was making a name for himself as a super sophomore at Kentucky, and the team that boasted Terry Davis, who would go on to become the state's Mr. Basketball that year.

"I was a nervous wreck in that game," says McWilliams' wife, Teresa, a Bearcat cheerleader in those days. "I still am when I go to a game but that is just me. I remember that game was tight, but we never thought we would beat Shelby. Even then, Shelby was Shelby."

And in the second quarter, Shelby was Shelby, building an 11-point lead.

"I remember that Terry Davis would release to about half court every time we shot. He seemed very interested in scoring," remembered Smith, who is still a regular at Bearcat games when not keeping stats for the Kentucky Wildcats.

"We wanted to stop Davis on the runout," Upchurch said. "We didn't let him get away from us. Davis still lit the Bearcats up for 36 points, but McWilliams, who got the assignment to guard the Shelby star recalled, "That was below his average!"

By halftime, Anderson had pulled within 4 and the Bearcats outpointed Shelby 25-17 in the third quarter to take the lead.

"One thing I remember was that late in the game, it was close and I remember thinking that we were going to have to score on every possession," McWilliams recalled.

Late in the game, with the score tied at 80, senior Terry Birdwhistell and freshman Jimmy Dan Conner both hit two free throws. Conner was beginning to turn some heads statewide and eventually became Anderson's only Mr. Basketball.

When the final horn sounded, the crowd rushed the floor hoisting a Bearcat player on its collective shoulders. A locally famous picture captured the moment in the pages of The Anderson News, but the player is not identified.

McWilliams says it was Conner, but Teresa protests, "I say it was John."

If so, it would have been fitting for the senior who was an all-state honorable mention selection. "John McWilliams was probably the hardest working player I ever coached," Upchurch says. "He worked so hard that he over-achieved."

Sadly, the win over Shelby turned out to be the highlight of a season that saw Anderson eventually lose on its home floor in the first round of the 42nd District tournament.

But the bond remains over the years.

McWilliams says he works with Keith James, who also started for the Bearcats that year and sees Sherman Harvey, who came off the bench to score 16 points against Shelby that night. Another starter, Eddie Huffman, tragically died of a heart attack at age 41.

In a twist of irony, Davis briefly coached youth baseball in Anderson County. One of his players happened to be McWilliams' son, Matthew, who eventually went on to pitch in the Cincinnati Reds' farm system. "When he coached Matthew, we talked about that game," McWilliams said. "He didn't remember me.

McWilliams broke out in a big laugh. "I remember him!"

But reflecting on that night brings back memories of a much simpler time, one in which crowds flocked to high school basketball games. "You have to remember, there was so little to do in Lawrenceburg then," Teresa McWilliams says.

Maybe, but on Feb. 10, 1968, the best place in the basketball world, at least for Anderson County fans was across Broadway at Anderson County High School.

"We probably looked at it as just another game," Upchurch said.

But just like anyone who saw Anderson beat one of the state's best, he knows it wasn't.

Paul McBrayer knew it, too.