Bluegrass basketball pundits of the day weren’t sure Scott County had the stamina to plow through a bracket that included Highlands, Lexington Catholic and Paintsville and win the 1998 KHSAA boys’ basketball Sweet 16.
Twenty-two thousand in attendance at Rupp Arena were incredulous at the Cardinals’ double-digit comeback to beat the Knights, ranked No. 3 in America, in the middle installment.
Triple that number probably claim to have been in the house and still share vivid descriptions of Rick Jones’ running 3-pointer whooshing through the net at the horn to punctuate that semifinal win, or the nighttime championship clincher that followed.
And to a man, the players and coaches refuse to believe March 21, 2023 represents an anniversary matching the color that’s turned up on top of their heads or in their beards.
“It does not feel like 25 years,” said Mario “Goo” McIntyre, a senior starter for the Cardinals that magical season. “I remember it like it was yesterday. When you have great moments like that in life, you don’t forget ‘em. Winning a state championship, your baby being born, getting married, those type of things are high on the list.”
McIntyre was one of 18 players, coaches, managers and support personnel honored Saturday at this year’s KHSAA semifinal session for their role in the first of Scott County’s two boys’ state titles. A reception at Galvin’s followed.
SC cut down the nets again in 2007, and five other Cardinal teams have reached the title game since ‘98. But there was something all parts unexpected, unyielding and unforgettable about the first-time feeling that gives it a place of honor in the community’s memory bank.
“It’s like the whole community rallied around our basketball team. That’s the coolest thing,” said A.W. Hamilton, then the Cards’ junior point guard and now men’s basketball coach at Eastern Kentucky University. “Everybody from Scott County came to those games. It’s breathtaking when you look at the pictures, because it’s not like that now. It’s not like that anywhere. That was a special time. It never gets old talking about it.”
The triumphant end of Scott County’s championship gauntlet was the start of a once-in-a-lifetime sequence in which a 20-mile radius inside the 502 and 859 area codes felt like hoops heaven.
Within nine days of the Cardinals’ climb to the state summit, Georgetown College (NAIA) and the University of Kentucky (NCAA) each won their respective men’s national championships.
“They were a tough group of kids, and not only tough on game night. They were tough every day in practice,” said Billy Hicks, who was in the fourth year of a titanic tenure at Scott County that ended with his becoming the first Kentucky coach to eclipse 1,000 career wins. “Most teams could not win the four games we had to win at state because they were not as tough as them. That was the toughest team I ever coached.”
Kentucky’s Sweet 16 bracket is historically set via blind draw more than a month before the tournament tips off.
While the Cardinals were the prohibitive favorite in the Eighth Region that year, one team each from Lexington and Louisville, another from Greater Cincinnati and one more from the holler earned a lion’s share of the attention. And as the basketball gods would have it, all those schools were sequestered in Scott County’s section of the draw.
“PRP (Pleasure Ridge Park) had a great team that year. Highlands beat us in Frankfort, one of our (three) losses. Catholic was one of the best high school teams I’ve ever seen in Kentucky. Paintsville had one of the best teams to ever come out of the mountains,” Hicks said. “It was just one of those years. When we got the draw, everybody on television was talking about it and nobody really mentioned our name. They didn’t think we could survive a draw that tough.”
Scott County first had to survive a 61-53 challenge from relatively unsung Union County in a first-round game played at a pedestrian pace. Jones (15 points), Hamilton (14) and sophomore sixth man Casey Alsop (13) led the balanced attack.
Michael Scaravilli and Toby Harris each added nine points, but 16 turnovers and the second-lowest scoring total of the season left the Cards both unsatisfied and relieved.
“Union County was a tough team to play because their style didn’t match our style,” McIntyre said. “They slowed the ball down a lot, and it was hard to get into our style of running and gunning. Like they say in boxing, ‘Styles make fights.’ I tell everybody that’s the three toughest days of basketball I’ve played in my life.”
Two future UK and NFL football players, the late Jared Lorenzen and Derek Smith, led Highlands into the quarterfinals. They combined for 39 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists, but SC rallied in the second half for a 72-67 victory behind 21 points from Jones, 12 points from Harris and 10 each by Alsop and McIntyre.
That set the stage for another rematch of sorts. Lexington Catholic tore through Scott County, winning by more than 30 points in the final of an AAU tournament that was the showcase summer event of its day.
The Cards were running on fumes, with Hamilton hospitalized at tourney’s end due to dehydration and full-body cramping. It could have been a demoralizing experience for SC, but by early fall Hicks already was about the business of displacing the doubt and planting seeds of faith.
“One thing about our team that made us special is we lived in the gym. Coach lived in the gym,” Hamilton said. “And I remember like it was yesterday. Coach said, ‘When we play them again, we’ll beat ‘em. They cannot beat us. We’re a better basketball team than they are.’ And we’re all looking at each other like, ‘What the hell is Coach talking about? They just beat us by 40.’”
No fewer than five future Division I players were on the court for the meeting that mattered.
It was a donnybrook at a Saturday morning hour typically suited for eating cereal and watching cartoons. The Cards soared to an early 19-16 lead. The Knights swung their sword for a second-quarter surge that spun it 43-35 in their direction, although Chris Wallace nailed a 3-pointer that gave SC some hope headed into the locker room.
“First you had to handle their pressure. (Catholic coach) Danny Haney came up with a system and style of play, and you had to beat that first,” Hicks said. “If you didn’t handle their pressure, they were gonna kill you. You had to handle the traps. And then you had to rebound with ‘em. They were not only tall, but they were big and strong. We were a slim team.”
But anyone who thought they had a slim chance seemed sadly mistaken after a 27-17 reversal put the Cards on top, 62-60, entering the fourth quarter.
Catholic countered again, however, and enjoyed a 78-72 advantage after David Graves’ 3-point play with 1:20 left. It was still 79-74 when Scott Mendenhall sank one of two free throws at the 48-second mark,
The Cards had to score in a hurry. That was Alsop’s objective when he double-pumped, absorbed contact from a defender and shot from the hip for an unlikely 3-pointer plus the foul.
“Everybody says Rick’s shot was the biggest one of the sequence, and obviously it won us the game, but Casey Alsop’s four-point play really got it rolling. I couldn’t believe he hit it,” McIntyre said. “It’s one of those things that you never die. That’s the mentality that Billy Hicks had, and that’s what we were taught for four years. It was just one of the things that was instilled in us by this Harlan/Evarts guy, so that’s the type of mentality that we had.”
Scott County rode the groundswell of momentum all the way to the final horn. Scaravilli made a steal and banked in a shot for his only two points of the game to put the Cards in front.
Lexington Catholic pushed the tempo for a quick bid that missed. McIntyre grabbed the rebound, and the Knights fouled him immediately, both out of necessity and because he was statistically their best bet.
Jones hugged McIntyre and told him to just imagine toeing the line back at the empty gym in Georgetown.
“Mario probably was the lowest free throw shooter in the starting group, but it’s a testament to how hard he worked,” Hicks said. “By the time we got the state semifinals, he went out there in front of 20,000 people and hit two big ones to give us the lead.”
The Knights had one last gasp in the form of Mendenhall’s leaning 3-pointer to tie it with five seconds left. Rather than stop the clock and give both teams time to stew about the final play, SC immediately worked the ball to its junior star Jones, who transferred from Corbin prior to that school year.
Jones had time to spin away from two defenders, push the ball down court until the clock read one second, then rise and fire from 25 feet.
Gasp. Swish. Roar. Bedlam.
“Rick hits the shot. We’re all chasing Rick, and I look up and Coach Hicks is chasing Rick,” Hamilton said. “There was so much love, the joy for everyone on the team. From where we had started, we’re beating Lexington Catholic. They’re top-five in the country. Nobody thought they could be beaten, and here we are. It’s hard to even describe the emotions of that.”
Then, as is the format again today after a few years of Sunday finals, Scott County had to compartmentalize it all, refuel and lace up their sneakers against Paintsville only a few hours later.
Led by their own D1 tandem of J.R. VanHoose and Todd Tackett, the Tigers were no afterthought. They led 25-22 and 49-44 at the first two checkpoints.
With Tackett nursing an injury, Paintsville couldn’t sustain that blistering pace. SC took command with a 25-16 third-quarter gain and sprinted to the finish line for an 89-78 victory to complete the historic week. Jones scored 34 for his encore.
“Rick had one of the greatest Saturdays in the history of the Sweet 16,” Hamilton said. “He was on fire versus Lexington Catholic, and then Saturday night he didn’t slow down. That’s when 32 minutes of ‘red heat’ started, and it’s the way we play now (at EKU).”
McIntyre described the champs as an inseparable group that could be silly off the court but relentless on it. He credited that to the now-legendary man in charge.
“Coach Hicks is a loner, and he’s a loner because he’s tough, and it’s tough to match the type of person that he is,” McIntyre said. “So when you finally have a group of kids that match your type of toughness, your type of grit, your type of will, where it’s you against everybody else, you know you have a special group, Knowing that Coach Hicks had our back through anything, that’s when you give him the same thing that he gives you.”
How long ago is 25 years?
Scott County was the plucky newcomer. Almost as soon as that trophy went into the case and the calendar switched to a new millennium, the Cards transitioned quickly from baby face to heel, in pro wrestling vernacular.
“Everybody cheered for us. We were the Cinderella team, the feelgood story. We were everybody’s favorite. We were the darling. The next year everybody hated us, and I don’t think it’s changed since,” Hamilton said.
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the performance put respect on the Cards’ name forever.
“This time of year when I go over to the Sweet 16 and watch all the games, there’s just random people that come up and talk about that game and that season,” Hamilton added. “It’s like it happened yesterday.”