High School Sports

Ashland vs. Carr Creek: The game that made the Sweet Sixteen great

The 1928 Ashland Tomcats (31-0 after winning the Sweet Sixteen) are one of two undefeated teams — Brewers (36-0) in 1948 is the other — to win the KHSAA-sanctioned Boys’ State Tournament. After beating Carr Creek in four overtimes in the state finals, Coach James Anderson’s Tomcats went on to win five games and the championship in a national high school tournament in Chicago.
The 1928 Ashland Tomcats (31-0 after winning the Sweet Sixteen) are one of two undefeated teams — Brewers (36-0) in 1948 is the other — to win the KHSAA-sanctioned Boys’ State Tournament. After beating Carr Creek in four overtimes in the state finals, Coach James Anderson’s Tomcats went on to win five games and the championship in a national high school tournament in Chicago. Photo submitted by Fred Anderson

On the night of the 1928 Kentucky high school basketball state tournament championship game, Lexington was beset by a snow storm.

“A terrific flurry of sleet and and snow which made driving almost impossible and walking a hazardous task,” The Courier-Journal’s Earl Ruby reported.

Yet the chance to see undefeated Ashland face “Cinderella” Carr Creek for the state crown led so many fans to brave the wintry hazards that hundreds seeking admission at the University of Kentucky’s Alumni Gym were turned away.

That was good news for the Kentucky Theater, whose enterprising proprietors had agreed to run a telegraph line from the gym to the movie house.

Throughout the game, play-by-play accounts were sent over the wire to be read aloud to anxious fans in the theater. As the state championship game went to one overtime, then two, then three and, at last, a climactic fourth, those reports kept coming and coming.

In this 100th year of the Boys’ Sweet Sixteen, it is possible to pinpoint the exact moment when the Kentucky state basketball tournament became an event of enduring statewide magnitude.

It was the snowy night when big-school power Ashland faced the irresistible underdogs from Carr Creek in a state championship game that would not end.

Cinderella rides horseback

When the Carr Creek basketball team showed up in Richmond to contest the 7th Region championship in 1928, they were all but a complete mystery to Kentucky.

Carr Creek was both a school and a community center in rural Knott County in the Appalachian Mountains. It had been founded only years before largely on the impetus of two philanthropic women, Olive Marsh and Ruth Weston, who came to Eastern Kentucky from Boston.

According to Don Miller’s book The Carr Creek Legacy, the high school graduated its first class — four boys, three girls — in 1927.

The school had no gymnasium. When weather permitted, Carr Creek played home games on an outdoor court. For close-by road games, Carr Creek players often traveled via horseback. According to Miller’s book, when Carr Creek sent a team to Hazard to play in the district tournament for the first time in 1926, the players walked 8 miles to Vicco and then caught a bus into Hazard.

Coach Oscar Morgan’s 1928 squad — starters were forwards Shelby Stamper and Gillis Madden; center Ben Adams; and guards Gurney Adams and Zelda Hale — came to Richmond for the regional tourney without basketball uniforms.

In The Carr Creek Legacy, Miller says the team had cut-off khakis for “trunks” and white T-shirts with numbers sewn on for “jerseys.”

Kentucky in 1928 was defying its custom of a one-size-fits-all state basketball tournament. The state was in the midst of a five-year experimentation (1927-31) with a form of class basketball, a Class A (large schools) and a Class B (smaller schools).

Carr Creek not only won the 7th Region “B Championship,” it then stunned “A champ” Middlesboro to win the overall crown with both teams advancing to the state tourney.

Enthralled, fans in Richmond took up a collection and bought Carr Creek “real uniforms” to wear in the state tournament.

“A week ago, the team was never heard of,” the Lexington Herald’s Frank K. Hoover wrote. “Today, Carr Creek is on the tongue of every man, woman or child who talks basketball.”

Goliath from a boom town

Ashland in the 1920s was booming. Over the course of the decade, the Ohio River town in northeastern Kentucky saw its population rise from 14,729 to 29,074. The company that would come to be known as Armco Steel came to town in 1921. Ashland Oil launched in 1924.

The town’s bounty was reflected in the athletics success of its high school.

Ashland’s Ellis Johnson was the most celebrated Kentucky high school athlete of the 1920s. As a football quarterback, Johnson led the Tomcats to three straight undefeated seasons. As a collegian, Johnson would go on to become the first athlete ever to letter in four sports — football, basketball, baseball and track — at the University of Kentucky. He was one of the first UK basketball All-Americans coached by Adolph Rupp.

In girls’ basketball, Ashland won five state titles between 1921 and ’29.

Coach James A. Anderson’s 1928 boys’ hoops team — Jack Phipps, Gene Strother, Darrell Darby, Jim Barney and Johnson were the starters — came to Lexington for the state tourney having not tasted defeat in 27 games.

Previewing the state tournament, the Lexington Herald noted “Ashland is much in the majority ... and are favorites, but the home folk ... seem to be rallying around Carr Creek.”

The game that wouldn’t end

As everyone hoped, the 1928 state championship came down to unbeaten Ashland from the “A Pool” and fan-darling Carr Creek from the “B.”

Describing the scene at the finals, The Courier-Journal’s Ruby noted that Ashland brought its high school band and had a large contingent of fans that included banker John E. Buckingham, “reputed to be the wealthiest man in Kentucky.”

In contrast, fans who had come from Knott County to back Carr Creek were sparse. It didn’t matter. “Half of Lexington turned Carr Creek citizens overnight, ... and cheering in the finals was evenly divided, if not a little in favor of the mountaineers,” Ruby reported.

The state championship game was low-scoring and tense.

Carr Creek led 4-3 at halftime. Ashland took an 8-6 lead into the fourth quarter. A free throw from Gene Strother put Ashland up 9-6, but, refusing to lose, Carr Creek sent the game into OT on a Gillis Madden field goal and a Shelby Stamper free throw.

After one OT, two OTs and three OTs, the game remained 9-9. In the fourth extra period, the dam broke. Jack Phipps hit a cutting Strother for a basket that put Ashland ahead. Johnson followed with another close-in bucket to make it 13-9 Ashland.

Scrambling frantically as it had at the end of regulation, Carr Creek got a basket from Zelda Hale, but couldn’t get the equalizer.

What is still the longest — and lowest-scoring — state championship game in Kentucky history ended Ashland 13, Carr Creek 11 (4OT).

The Lexington Leader’s Neville Dunn represented contemporaneous media opinion when he proclaimed the four-overtime drama “the greatest game ever played in Kentucky — bar none.”

Lasting legacy

Fascinatingly, the game that enraptured Kentucky was less celebrated in the town of the school that won it.

In 1928, there was a Chicago basketball tournament that billed itself as the national high school championship. By virtue of winning the Kentucky state title, Ashland was invited to play. Based on its fan appeal, Carr Creek was, too.

Carr Creek won three games in Chi-Town and reached the quarterfinals. Ashland won five games and took that championship, too. To this day, people in Ashland refer to the undefeated 1928 Tomcats as “the national championship team.”

“When you win the national championship, it surpasses the state championship,” said Fred Anderson, grandson of the 1928 Ashland coach. “(In the state tournament), Carr Creek stole the show and greatly overshadowed the Tomcats.”

Today, Ashland basketball teams still play in the James A. Anderson Gymnasium. Carr Creek closed in 1974, but its alumni association now owns the school building and is raising funds to preserve it.

In its impact on basketball inside the commonwealth, the unending 1928 state championship game played on that snowy night in Lexington proved enduring.

“In my mind, there’s no question that Ashland-Carr Creek is the game most responsible for making the Sweet Sixteen into a true, statewide event,” says Julian Tackett, commissioner of the Kentucky High School Athletic Association.

Jeff Bridgeman, author of The Kentucky High School Basketball Encyclopedia said, “Even though Carr Creek didn’t win the championship, I think the mythology that any small school has a chance to win the state championship traces back to that one game.”

Validated periodically by a Cuba, Edmonson County or Shelby Valley — and by Carr Creek itself in 1956 — that belief has sustained the Sweet Sixteen ever since.

1928 Boys’ State Tournament

Champion: Ashland (Coach James Anderson)

Site: Alumni Gym, Lexington

First round: Pool A: Covington 46, Heath 23; St. Xavier 53, Central City 14; Ashland 16, Danville 8; Henderson 31, Middlesboro 24; Pool B: Carr Creek 31, Walton 11; Minerva 34, Corydon 14; Woodburn 26, Wickliffe 25; Lawrencenburg 38, LaGrange 21.

Quarterfinals: Covington 26, St. Xavier 25; Ashland 25, Henderson 13; Carr Creek 21, Minerva 11; Lawrenceburg 38, Woodburn 21.

Semifinals: Ashland 22, Covington 13; Carr Creek 37, Lawrenceburg 11

Championship game: Ashland 13, Carr Creek 11 (4OT)

Ashland (13) — Strother 7, Darby 2, Barney 2, Phipps 0, Johnson 2.

Carr Creek (11) – Stamper 5, Madden 2, B.Adams 0, Hale 3, G.Adams 1.

All-Tournament Team: Ellis Johnson, Gene Strother, Ashland; Gillis Madden, Zelda Hale, Shelby Stamper, Ben Adams, Carr Creek; Gerard Ricketts, Covington; Sam Basan, Henderson.

About this 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 March 15-19, 2017. The Herald-Leader is getting the party started a little earlier.

Today’s column by Mark Story about Ashland vs. Carr Creek and Josh Moore’s feature on Brewers’ undefeated state champions are the second and third articles in a series we’re publishing in the newspaper and on Kentucky.com over the course of the 2016-17 high school basketball season. Last month, Mark Story explored the origins of the state tournament.

Our coverage will examine the significance of the tournament to our state’s history, revisit memorable games, champions and moments and look at where the event goes from here. We’ll explore the joy, the heartbreak and the social impact of the event and recall the teams and players every Kentuckian should know about.

We hope you enjoy it.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader