High School Basketball

The Sweetest Century: Brewers’ unbeaten run to championship still stands test of time

March 20, 1948: The day the Brewers Redmen defeated Maysville, 55-48, to win the KHSAA boys’ basketball title and finish 36-0.

March 19, 2017: The date of this season’s boys’ basketball finals, at the end of which — most likely — the champion will not be undefeated.

In the moment, Brewers High School — which in 1956 consolidated with Hardin to form South Marshall, which subsequently consolidated with Benton and North Marshall to form Marshall County in 1974 — celebrated its championship with lots of fanfare. Had the Redmen known they’d still be the last undefeated boys’ champion nearly 70 years later, the party might never have ended.

“They took us around and gave us banquets and took us on airplane rides and fed us at restaurants,” said Barney Thweatt, one of the 1948 team’s starters. “We had a big parade. It was big-time.”

Thweatt, 86, is one of three surviving members of that vaunted squad, which is one of only five teams to have won a state title coming out of the 1st Region. Tom Mathis, the team’s sixth man, is living in a nursing home in Benton. Charles Stone, a freshman who didn’t see much court time, also lives in the area. Thweatt speaks with each of them weekly.

In fact, when the Herald-Leader caught up with Thweatt on Dec. 3, he had recently visited Stone — who eventually became his brother-in-law — at his home, where a notable piece of Brewers memorabilia resides. A 10-by-10 banner celebrating the 1948 championship, with each team member’s name emblazoned on it, has hung in Stone’s garage since it was removed from Brewers’ gymnasium prior to its demolition in 1976.

Thweatt snapped a photo to keep on his person while he was over there.

“I wanted to make sure it’s still where you can look at it,” he said with a laugh.

‘The pressure was on’

Thweatt, who in 1991 was part of the fourth class inducted into the KHSAA Hall of Fame, has never been shy in expressing a sort of guilty glee when a challenger to Brewers’ claim to fame gets knocked off during the course of a season.

“I guess I ought to feel like, since we’ve held it for 50 years, more power to ’em if they can do it, “Thweatt told the Herald-Leader’s Mike Fields in 1998. “But deep down I hope nobody else does it.”

In that interview, Thweatt said the 1979 Lafayette team — which was upset by Tates Creek in the district finals and finished with a 36-1 record and a state title — put a scare into him. During the more recent conversation, Thweatt mentioned the 1978 Apollo and 1989 Clay County teams as squads about which he was most concerned when it came to Brewers’ place in history.

Both of those teams entered the state tournament undefeated. Apollo lost in the first round to Shelby County, a team it had beaten in the finals of the Louisville Invitational Tournament that season, while Clay County dropped its first-round game to, ironically, Marshall County. That Clay County team was the last to reach “The Greatest Show in Hoops” unblemished. A total of 21 teams have managed to do it; only the 1916 Henderson team and the 1928 Ashland squad did what Brewers was able to do.

That makes Brewers the only school to have run the table in the last 88 years. Those Redmen, coached by the late McCoy Tarry (also a KHSAA Hall of Fame member), did it with the weight of Western Kentucky on their shoulders, too.

“We were so excited. The pressure was on us all year,” Thweatt said. “You wouldn’t think it would be with us down here winning so big, but everybody expected us to win it. The pressure was on.”

Throughout the 1948 season Brewers smashed its regional brethren — it defeated Mayfield, 70-25, in the 1st Region finals — and was ranked No. 1 for much of the season in statewide polling. Wrote the Lexington Herald’s Bob Adair in response to the release of the tournament pairings, in which 11th Region representative Clark County was matched up with Brewers in the first round: “The Blue Grass area’s hopes for its first state high school basketball championship since 1942 appeared remote ...” Brewers won 63-59.

The Redmen had lost to Maysville in a grit-and-grind state finals the year before — the teams combined for 47 fouls in the ’47 title game, a state-tournament record for 51 years — but revenge wasn’t on the team’s mind when a prospective rematch was in play come 1948. Thweatt said Brewers wanted to play Owensboro, for whom future University of Kentucky players Cliff Hagan and Bobby Watson suited up, but Maysville knocked off Owensboro in the semifinals.

“What we were hoping that year was to get to play Owensboro in the finals because they had Hagan and Watson,” Thweatt said. “A lot of people thought they were better than Brewers and they might’ve been rated higher at times.”

He added with a laugh, “Looking back, I guess I’m glad we didn’t ’cause they might’ve beaten us.”

Better the year before?

Brewers’ 1948 team returned four starters from its 1947 edition that fell in the finals and lost just one other game that season. Inez defeated the Redmen, 42-39, in a March of Dimes benefit game on Feb. 9, 1947, in UK’s Alumni Gym. Then-UK athletic director Bernie Shively acted as one of the officials in that contest, Thweatt said.

Inez never trailed in the regular-season meeting but didn’t reach the state tournament. Thweatt attributed that outcome partly to travel and weather.

“We drove all the way to Lexington that day,” he said. “It took us 6 1/2 hours to get there. It was cold. I’ll never forget.”

Jim Owens, Brewers’ starting center, contended that the ’47 team was actually stronger than its title club, according to Thweatt.

“He said, ‘We were better last year than we were this year,’” Thweatt recalled. “I said, ‘Well, I think we were as good.’”

Those Redmen teams combined to go 70-2 over two seasons, arguably the best two-year run by any Kentucky boys’ basketball program. It’s made all the more impressive by the fact that the school only had 70 boys enrolled.

Today a combination of scheduling — the state’s strongest teams often find themselves pitted against juggernauts outside Kentucky borders — and natural progression of talent development statewide makes such a stretch of dominance seem unattainable. Players in 2016 are stronger, bigger and much more athletic than they were in Thweatt’s playing days.

“They get better coaching, they’re on weight programs. They’re just better-trained,” he said.

All the weight-lifting and natural talent in the world can’t teach a player the fundamentals of the game, however. That’s a bridge that bonds Thweatt’s era with this one, and an area in which he often observes basic errors — over-dribbling, forgetting to screen, not boxing out — that keep great teams from being legendary.

That doesn’t stop Thweatt from enjoying the game that helped build him an incredible life in athletics. He went on to coach two basketball programs — Oldham County and Paducah Tilghman — to the state tournament and served on the KHSAA Board of Control for four years, acting as its president in 1981. While he was a principal at Christian County, the Colonels won two Class 4A football titles and were twice runners-up in the boys’ Sweet Sixteen.

Thweatt’s health doesn’t allow him to leave Benton often, but he attended almost every Sweet Sixteen from 1946 — he was a starter on a Brewers team that lost to eventual state-runner up Dawson Springs in the first round that year — up until a few years ago. He still tunes in to high school games on his radio and cheers on UK from a den dedicated to the Wildcats.

“I couldn’t ask for a better life than I’ve had,” Thweatt said. “Every day I just look forward to one more day. That’s all we’ve got. In fact, we’ve just got the hour. We don’t have the day, do we?”

Brewers has sure had its share of hours. For more than 600,000 of them, the Redmen have been Kentucky’s last unbeaten boys’ basketball champion.

And the final buzzer keeps sounding in their favor.

Josh Moore: 859-231-1307, @HLpreps

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 feature by Josh Moore on Brewers’ undefeated state champions and Mark Story’s column about Ashland vs. Carr Creek in 1928 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.

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