Even before his playing days at Marshall University (2002-05) ended, A.W. Hamilton knew the direction he wanted his life to take. The ex-Scott County High School star aspired to be a college basketball coach.
To gain contacts and experience, Hamilton worked his connections and became a regular as a coach at Tubby Smith’s summer basketball camps at the University of Kentucky.
At his camps, Smith had a long-running tradition. On Sunday nights, he would work his way around the entire camp to shake hands with each coach working.
“That always made a big impression on me,” Hamilton said Thursday. “It was such a classy thing to do.”
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For his eighth game as a Division I head coach, Hamilton, 38, took EKU to High Point University in North Carolina to face Smith, 67, who is now in his initial season as head man at his alma mater.
In Kentucky in 1998, Hamilton and Smith each enjoyed the best basketball year of their lives to date.
That same March, Hamilton was a junior standout on the Scott County team that claimed the Kentucky high school state title with memorable victories over Lexington Catholic (Sweet Sixteen semifinals) and Paintsville (state finals).
“Growing up in Scott County, we watched every one of those (1998) Kentucky games,” Hamilton said. “I can still remember them getting down big to Duke (17 points with under 10 minutes to go in the elite eight) and coming back. Jeff Sheppard, Scott Padgett, those guys had big NCAA Tournaments.”
In the years since, Hamilton had gotten to know Smith better via the recruiting trail. When Tubby was coach at Minnesota (2007-2013) and Hamilton was head man at Hargrave Military Academy (2011-17), Smith had signed a player, forward Charles Buggs, from the Virginia prep school.
“(Smith would) come to Hargrave and spend time, and I’d get to sit down and talk to him,” Hamilton said.
At UK, Smith amassed 263 of his career wins.
Once the celebration ended, High Point unleashed a 42-19 blitzkrieg on EKU to open the game.
“We got down 23, but our kids battled and we got it down to 11 at halftime,” Hamilton said. “In the second half, we kept making runs, but they kept answering. We’d cut it to three, they’d push it back out to six. We’d cut it to two, they’d get it back to five.”
Eastern was still down 68-64 when Dujuanta Weaver buried a trey from the top of the key with 42 seconds left to pull the Colonels within one.
After High Point converted only one of two free throw tries with nine seconds left, EKU had the ball, down two, with a last-gasp chance.
Eastern got the ball to senior star Nick Mayo at the top of the key. The 6-foot-9, 250-pound Mayo feinted like he was going to drive, then instead uncorked a “walk-off” three-pointer try.
When it went in, EKU had a 70-69 win.
Eastern’s coach found himself in the post-game handshake line opposite an opposing head man whose hand he had shaken many times before on those Sunday nights at Kentucky Wildcats summer camps.
“It was a little bit surreal,” Hamilton says.
This time, as Tubby Smith shook his hand, Hamilton said the former Kentucky coach spoke briefly. “He just said he was proud of how hard we had played,” Hamilton said.
The contract that took Eastern Kentucky (now 5-4 after beating South Carolina-Upstate Wednesday) to North Carolina to play High Point (4-5) is a two-year deal.
“Next year, we’re bringing Tubby to Richmond, and we’re going to honor him,” Hamilton said. “We’ll probably give him the most maroon (EKU’s school color) sport coat he’s ever owned.”
If college coaching goes the way A.W. Hamilton envisions it, there will be hundreds more victories ahead, hopefully some that yield championships.
Yet his fourth victory as a college head coach — and the post-game handshake that followed it — will forever live vividly in his memory bank.
“To be there on the day they honored Tubby for his 600th win,” Hamilton says, “to get down 23 and then fight back and win on a buzzer beater; and then to shake Tubby’s hand, it’s one I’ll never forget.”
Mark Story (859) 231-3230; Twitter: @markcstory