It was the night of March 4, 1966. The Clark County High School gymnasium was packed—filled to capacity. The Mt. Sterling Trojans had come over to play the Clark County Cardinals in the first game of the district tournament. I was attending UK then, but still a rabid fan of my alma mater. My friends and I had come to Winchester to watch the Trojans’ super seniors: Henry Owens, Mike Cooper, Curt Steger, Mason Kash, and Leonard Guy.
Coach Jim McAfee’s Trojans had finished that season with a 21–5 record, while Lewis Snowden’s Cardinals had gone 14–10. But you could throw out the records whenever these two schools met. Over the years the fierce rivalry between the two schools had only intensified. Everyone there that night expected it to be a nip and tuck battle to the finish.
The game played out true to form with the advantage going back and forth. Clark County drew first blood when Donnie McNabb hit a jumper and the Cardinals led 14–11 after the first period. The Trojans fought back to take the lead at halftime, 31–25.
Clark County retook the lead at the end of the third quarter 43–41. The Cardinals were ahead by 3 points with 2:23 remaining in the contest. The teams traded baskets before Curt Steger made a shot, tying the score at 55–55 with 31 seconds left. Both teams missed their final shots, and the game went into overtime.
Throughout the contest, the fans screamed in support of their home teams. During overtime the roar was constant and deafening. The period began with Steger and Wayne Keene trading baskets. John Sewell hit a pair of free throws for Clark County and Henry Owens matched them for Mt. Sterling, and it was 59–59 with 1:07 to go. Sewell went to the line and hit one out of two. Then Cooper connected on two free throws to put Mt. Sterling ahead 61–60 with only nine seconds left on the clock.
What happened next was perceived differently by the partisan fans. Since I was a diehard Trojan, it’s probably best to tell the story of those last nine seconds from the “non-partisan” local newspapers.
According to the Winchester Sun, “The Cardinals brought the ball past midcourt, and with only 2 seconds left, got a shot which was wide. John Sewell, in position to rebound under the basket, sent a shot back through the nets with time already off on the clock. The horn sounded just as Sewell released his shot and it rolled through.”
“Bedlam broke loose on the floor as a number of fans rushed to the scorer’s table to check the decision. After a lengthy discussion with the referees, the official timekeeper, Bill Burch, announced that the basket was good.”
The defeat ruined a brilliant effort by Henry Owens who was the game’s high scorer with 27 points. Another of the Trojan super seniors, James Walker, was unable to play.
The Mt. Sterling Advocate’s version expanded the story providing a bit more detail:
“CARDINALS 62, TROJANS 61. Trojan fans will argue for the rest of their lives that the above subhead should read ‘Bill Burch 62, Trojans 61’ following Mt. Sterling’s overtime loss to Clark County at Winchester Friday night.
“Burch, a teacher at Clark County High, the official timer for the game said he ‘thought’ John Sewell’s shot was in the air when the horn sounded ending the overtime. Mt. Sterling was leading 61 to 60 at the time.”
One of the referees of the game, Charlie Reed of Versailles in a statement to the Courier-Journal, stated, “Mt. Sterling was leading by one point when Clark County shot from the corner with a few seconds left. The ball bounced off the basket but Sewell of Clark County got the ball and put it in.”
Reed continued, “With 4,500 fans screaming, neither official—George Maines of Lexington was under the basket—could hear the final horn. As soon as the ball went in I turned to the scorer’s table for help, for that’s what the rule book says if you are in doubt. But I got no assistance. The official scorer said he didn’t know if the basket should count, and the timer hesitated.”
There was a long discussion at the scorer’s table with angry fans gathered around. Finally, two points went up on the scoreboard for Clark County—and that was it.
According to Reed, “Finally, the timer, a teacher at Clark County whom all coaches had agreed on to work the tournament, said he thought Sewell’s shot was in the air when the horn sounded. Then I made my decision to give Clark County two points. The only worse spot could have happened would have been in the regional final.”
“Jim McAfee said he couldn’t hear the horn either. McAfee was a perfect gentleman. He put his arm around me and took me to the dressing room. There might have been more trouble had he not done that.”
The Advocate published one fan letter that read, “There was little if any deliberate fouling and both teams had tremendous support from cheering sections. There is not one thing that either team has tCardinalso be ashamed of. The way I saw the crucial play. The Clark County boy did not have a clear shot and dribbled about 3 or 4 steps and shot. While the ball was in the air the buzzer sounded and the basket was missed. There was a quick tap up that missed and then another tap up by John Sewell that went in.”
I personally believe that few, if any, in the stands actually heard the buzzer. I know I didn’t. Sadly, some of the Mt. Sterling fans reacted badly. The Cardinals’ trophy case was broken, several cars were vandalized, and a number of arrests were made.
Mt. Sterling High closed in 1976 and merged with Montgomery County. Today there’s still a pretty intense rivalry between the Montgomery County Indians and the George Rogers Clark Cardinals.