Editor’s note: Mike Fields covered high school sports for the Lexington Herald-Leader for 35 years before his retirement in 2015. He now writes part time for the KHSAA.
Celebrating 100 years of the KHSAA boys’ Sweet Sixteen means celebrating everything that makes it the most unique high school basketball tournament in the world.
The coaches, fans, cheerleaders, officials, hometown radio stations, even the arenas, help create an atmosphere of excitement, joy, and jangled nerves.
But it’s the players — teenagers performing on the biggest stage under the brightest lights before thousands of spectators — who deserve most of the credit for making the Sweet Sixteen the spectacle that it is.
I’m lucky to have covered the last 41 state tournaments, and while it’s impossible to list all of the highlights I’ve witnessed, along with approximately 4.5 million (!) fans, here are some of the most memorable:
▪ Paul Andrews’ half-court heave-and-swish at the buzzer lifted Laurel County to a 53-51 victory over North Hardin in the 1982 championship game. There were 15,289 fans in Rupp Arena that night, but over the years at least 50,000 people have claimed they witnessed the fantastic finish.
▪ Greg Bates’ rebound basket at the buzzer gave Henry Clay a 35-33 triple-overtime victory over Carlisle County in the 1983 finals. It might have been the most spine-tingling Sweet Sixteen game in history. Every possession was as valuable as gold.
▪ Ken-Jah Bosley’s three-pointer with :05 left capped Madison Central’s come-from-behind 65-64 victory over Ballard in the 2013 title game. Madison Central trailed by 16 points in the third quarter before mounting an epic rally.
▪ Rick Jones’ on-the-fly, 25-foot three-pointer at the buzzer gave Scott County an 85-82 upset of No. 3 in the nation Lexington Catholic in the 1998 semifinals.
▪ Charles Hurt of Shelby County hit a 15-foot jumper as the horn sounded at the end of regulation to tie Covington Holmes 64-64 in the 1978 finals. Shelby County went on to win 68-66 in overtime.
▪ Clay County’s Richie Farmer made nine of 14 three-pointers on his way to a title-game record 51 points (to go with seven rebounds and six assists), but Ballard prevailed 88-79 in Freedom Hall in 1988. Farmer scored at will despite sometimes being double-teamed by Allan Houston and Mark Bell. Farmer, who led Clay County past Ballard in the 1987 finals, had a succinct answer when asked about his record-setting night: “I wish we’d won the game.”
▪ Antwain Barbour had a Saturday for the ages in leading Elizabethtown to the 2000 championship: 42 points (including 17 in the last 3:10) and 15 rebounds in the Panthers’ 88-87 victory over Russellville in the semifinals; 31 points and eight rebounds in a come-from-behind 79-69 win over Lexington Catholic in the finals. Barbour was 30-for-49 from the field in the two games.
▪ Jeff Royce was Mr. Clutch in leading Bourbon County to an improbable run to the 1984 state finals. He scored the last three points in overtime to give the Colonels a 65-63 first-round win over Marshall County. He hit a 17-footer to force OT against Ballard in the quarterfinals, then hit a 16-footer as time expired to beat the Bruins 74-72. On his 18th birthday, Royce drove the length of the court and made a 10-footer with :02 left to push Bourbon County past M.C. Napier 57-56 in the semifinals. The Colonels lost to Logan County in the finals, but Royce’s week in Rupp was one to remember.
▪ J.R. VanHoose was only a sophomore in 1996 when he had 29 points and 27 rebounds in a 79-55 semifinal victory over Lexington Catholic. He also had 25 points and 20 rebounds in a first-round 80-78 win over Owensboro, and hit the game-winning shot with :02 left in overtime. Paintsville won the title and VanHoose earned MVP honors.
▪ Chris Lofton showed one of the sweetest touches in state tournament history in leading Mason County to its first championship. The junior sharpshooter hit four of five three-pointers and had 30 points in a 75-63 semifinal win over Hopkinsville, then hit nine of 12 threes on his way to 39 points in an 86-65 rout of Ballard in the finals. Lofton was voted Sweet Sixteen MVP.
Five random remembrances
▪ University Heights beat Lexington Catholic for the 1992 title in the strangest championship setting in Sweet Sixteen history. Many fans paid more attention to the UK-Duke showdown in the NCAA Tournament region finals in Philadelphia than what was happening on the court in front of them. They were listening to radio coverage of UK-Duke or watching it on TV in the Freedom Hall suites. A roar went up when Sean Woods put UK up 103-102 with :02.1 left; a collective groan punctuated Christian Laettner’s game-winning shot.
▪ Stan Hardin coaching Fairdale to back-to-back titles in 1990 and ’91 — the only boys’ team to repeat in the last 46 years — with Jermaine Brown, Maurice Morris and Carlos Turner leading the way.
▪ Looking around Rupp Arena during the Friday night quarterfinals in 1987 and seeing a world-record attendance for a high school basketball game. The crowd was originally announced as 24,041, but was later adjusted to 21,283 — still a Sweet Sixteen record. The fans were there to watch Clay County beat LaRue County, and Madison Central beat Oldham County.
▪ Pulaski County Coach Dave Fraley hugging son Shannon after his driving layup in the closing seconds beat Pleasure Ridge Park for the 1986 title; Covington Catholic Coach Scott Ruthsatz embracing his son Nick after his MVP performance led the Colonels to the 2014 championship.
▪ Bobby Keith, fighting back tears, after guiding Clay County to the 1987 championship. Keith, who passed away last fall, devoted his life — as a player, coach and fan — to Tigers’ basketball. No Sweet Sixteen title ever meant more to anybody.
About the Sweetest Century series
Kentucky will celebrate the 100th year of the boys’ state high school basketball tournament when the Sweet Sixteen plays out in Rupp Arena from Wednesday through Sunday this week.
Over the course of the 2016-17 high school basketball season, the Herald-Leader has published regularly appearing stories on Kentucky.com and in the newspaper highlighting memorable moments from the state tournament’s history.
Our coverage examines the significance of the tournament to our state’s history, revisits memorable games, champions and moments and looks at where the event goes from here. We’re exploring the joy, the heartbreak and the social impact of the event and recalling the teams and players every Kentuckian should know about.
We’re wrapping up the series this week as part of our annual Sweet Sixteen preview special section in Wednesday’s Herald-Leader and in posts you’ll be able to find all week on Kentucky.com and Kentucky.com/high-school.
And be sure to stay with our coverage throughout the week as new memories are made during the 100th state tournament.
Here are installments in the Sweetest Century series published to date:
March 15, 2017: Catching up with some of the Sweet Sixteen’s great folk heroes
March 15, 2017: At 100, Sweet Sixteen remains authentically Kentucky
March 14, 2017: Hazard played surprising role in integrating the Sweet Sixteen
March 13, 2017: A year-by-year history of the boys’ Sweet Sixteen
Feb. 15: 2017: Mason County’s Chris Lofton was ‘one of a kind’
Jan. 15, 2017: The team that saved Kentucky’s Sweet Sixteen
Nov. 27, 2016: From chaos, the Kentucky boys’ Sweet Sixteen was born