BY MIKE FIELDS
Ten years after the greatest Sweet Sixteen championship game I ever witnessed, I sat down with the coach of the winning team and watched it again.
It was just as entertaining and spine-tingling the second time around.
Henry Clay outlasted Carlisle County 35-33 in three overtimes in the finals of the 1983 Boys’ State Basketball Tournament, with Greg Bates’ buzzer-beating rebound basket finally deciding the epic battle that left the 19,500 fans in Rupp Arena emotionally exhausted.
Carlisle County vs. Henry Clay was a classic title game matchup. Small school vs. big school. Small town vs. big city. Country kids vs. city kids.
David didn’t slay Goliath in this go-around. He had his chances but couldn’t quite connect with his slingshot.
A decade later, I sat down with Al Prewitt, who had coached the Blue Devils to that stirring victory, and we watched a tape of the game on his VCR. (For those too young to remember, a VCR was a Video Cassette Recorder. 1993 was still the Stone Age when it came to TV technology.)
When the replay was over, Prewitt looked happy, relieved and tired, just like he had that March night 10 years earlier.
“I remember after it was over, Jock Sutherland came up and told me it was such a tense game he could hardly sit and watch,” Prewitt said. “He wanted to know how the coaches and players lived through it. I had no idea, and I still don’t.”
The inclination was to cast Carlisle County, a rural school with 265 students from far Western Kentucky, as the underdog to Henry Clay, a city school with an enrollment of 1,500.
The Blue Devils also looked more impressive, too. Steve Miller, a powerful 6-foot-5 junior (who would be selected Mr. Basketball the next season); Jeff Blandon, a point guard with all kinds of quickness; big-bodied Roy Moment; strong, athletic Robert Warfield; and the lithe, quick-leaping Bates.
Carlisle County had beefy Keith York at 6-2, 220 pounds; a backcourt of David Henley and David Rambo, who could have been cast as Wally and Beaver Cleaver; rail-thin 6-7 John Tyler, and solidly built 6-2 Phillip Hall.
But Prewitt knew not to underestimate Craynor Slone’s Comets. They had won 40 games, and one of their best performances had come in a loss. They have given Baltimore Dunbar, the No. 1 team in the nation, all kinds of problems in the King of the Bluegrass holiday tournament.
The Sweet Sixteen finals turned out to be a chess match when Carlisle County got the Blue Devils to play a deliberate tempo.
“Once we were in it, we realized . . . that if we didn’t take good shots, we might find ourselves down by six or seven points, and that would’ve been disastrous,” Prewitt said. “So we got more and more conservative as the game went on.”
Every possession was precious.
Henry Clay led 15-12 at halftime and 23-22 after three quarters. It was 29-29 when Carlisle County missed a shot at the end of regulation.
The Comets also had a chance to win at the end of the first two overtimes, but couldn’t get a shot to fall.
Carlisle County looked it would get a final shot in the third OT, too, before losing the ball on a turnover with 90 seconds left.
Henry Clay took possession and ran the clock down to :09 before calling a timeout.
While the Rupp Arena crowd was holding its collective breath, I remember sensing the tension along press row. Media people are usually good at detaching themselves emotionally from the games they are chronicling. Not on this night. Everybody was caught up in the drama on the court.
Prewitt drew up a play to get Miller a jump shot from the free throw line.
The strategy was scrapped, however, when Miller couldn’t shake free. The inbounds pass went to Warfield on the left wing. Miller darted to the left corner, got the ball and fired up a jumper as the final seconds ticked away.
The shot missed, but Bates, positioned on the right block, snagged the rebound and banked in the winning shot as the horn sounded.
“It was like a big ‘whew!’ It was like all the pressure was released,” Prewitt said. “It was a moment I’ll never forget.”
Neither will Slone, who in 1993 said, “Hardly a day goes by that I don’t think about that game. I never got over coming that close to a state championship, and I probably never will.
“It was the worst feeling I’ve ever had. It was pure agony.”
Prewitt’s own celebration was bittersweet. While he and his team were winning the state title in Rupp Arena, his wife Betty was in Lexington hospital, dying from cancer.
That night, Prewitt and a couple of his players drove to the hospital to visit her, and they and took the championship trophy with them.
Betty Prewitt passed away two weeks later.