High School Basketball

Mike Fields: Title returns Owensboro to prominence

Owensboro head coach Rod Drake pumped up the student section in the last minute of the Whitaker Bank/KHSAA Boys' Sweet 16 State Championship Game between Bowling Green and Owensboro at at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., on March 22, 2015. Owensboro beat Bowling Green 74-58 to win the state championship.  Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff
Owensboro head coach Rod Drake pumped up the student section in the last minute of the Whitaker Bank/KHSAA Boys' Sweet 16 State Championship Game between Bowling Green and Owensboro at at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., on March 22, 2015. Owensboro beat Bowling Green 74-58 to win the state championship. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff Lexington Herald-Leader

"Owensboro is back, baby!" bellowed a beside-himself-happy Coach Rod Drake after the Red Devils captured the 98th Whitaker Bank/KHSAA Sweet Sixteen championship Sunday afternoon.

Owensboro led wire-to-wire in thumping Bowling Green 74-58 in a showdown of Western Kentucky rivals in front of 11,435 fans in Rupp Arena.

The Red Devils won their first state title since 1980, when Drake and Dwight Higgs were the stars and cut down the nets in Freedom Hall.

"I didn't realize what I did in '80," Drake said. "I just thought I'd won a ball game.

"But this, now, this is just unbelievable."

Owensboro also won the Sweet Sixteen in 1972, led by Mr. Basketball Jerry Thruston, and in 1949, led by the legendary Cliff Hagan. (The Red Devils won the 1917 state tournament, but that title came two years before the KHSAA took over sponsorship of the event.)

Owensboro's hoops past is as glorious as any school's in Kentucky. But its tradition lay dormant the past 35 years. Sunday was the first time the Red Devils were in the finals since 1980.

Drake was determined (obsessed?) with getting them back to the top.

Senior standout Aric Holman said the team "heard it every day from coach, that we could be one of those teams, like in the past, that won it all. That stayed in the back of our heads. We knew what our main goal was."

The journey began when these current seniors were freshmen. They took their lumps in an 8-20 season. They improved to 19-11 as sophomores, and 21-11 as juniors, including a trip to the Sweet Sixteen that ended with a first-round loss to Trinity.

They came back this year loaded with talent, size, experience and determination.

Drake said he really believed they would do it after their quarterfinal victory over Hopkinsville. "Once we got past them, I knew we were ready."

Owensboro needed a gutsy comeback to beat defending champ Covington Catholic in overtime in Saturday's semifinals. Justin Miller, a 6-foot-7, 290-pound senior, suffered a groin/hamstring injury in that game, which concerned Drake. "I stayed up all night. I slept on the hotel couch waiting on him."

Miller never doubted he'd be ready for the finals: "My last game with my brothers, I wasn't going to let an injury take that away from me."

Miller didn't just play, he earned Sweet Sixteen MVP honors. He totaled 61 points, 40 rebounds and 16 assists in four games.

The 6-9 Holman stood tall, too, totaling 69 points, 42 rebounds and 18 blocks for the week.

The Devils got solid guard play from seniors Dylan Sanford and Darion Morrow, and sophomore Jacoby Harris.

Bowling Green Coach D.G. Sherrill said his team "ran into a buzz saw. The stuff that worked for us all week long didn't work for us tonight.

"The reason why was Owensboro. They were the best team in the tournament."

It had been 35 years since anybody said that about the Red Devils. Nobody was happier to hear it again than Drake, believed to be the first in state history to win the Sweet Sixteen as a player and coach at the same school.

Drake said a couple times this week that when he wakes up at night and recalls his basketball dreams, he's not drawing up X's and O's or calling a timeout as a coach.

Rather, in his dreams he's still playing and competing.

"That's what I tell these guys, that from now on when you dream, you'll dream about last-second shots and cutting down nets."

And how they brought Owensboro basketball back, baby.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader

  Comments