By J.R. VANHOOSE
PAINTSVILLE — Coach Bill Mike Runyon was going to see what his 1986-87 Paintsville team was made of by giving them a very tough schedule for the season. With back-to-back trips to the state tournament, Runyon believed that by toughing up the schedule, the Tigers would have a good chance to use that experience to win their third consecutive 15th Region crown and to make a run at a state title.
Going into the season Runyon said, “I expect a whole lot more success than what we had last year. If we work hard, and the kids stay hungry, I feel like we can really make a name for ourselves.”
The Tigers were going to play in the prestigious Hillbrook Classic at Memorial Coliseum in Lexington; the Panther Classic at Louisville PRP; the King of the Bluegrass in Louisville; the Belk Beach Ball Classic in Myrtle Beach, S.C.; and the Motocraft Classic at Oldham County. Runyon described the schedule as, “Definitely one of the best Paintsville High School has ever had and, overall, one of the better schedules in the state of Kentucky.”
There was immense pressure on the Tigers in the pre-season. One publication stated, “Paintsville High has emerged from basketball obscurity to become one of the state’s most prominent programs.” The pressure would be distributed among the Paintsville players. Among whom, included 6-foot-7 senior Mr. Basketball candidate John Pelphrey who averaged 18.9 points per game and almost 11 rebounds as a junior; 6-3 senior Joey Couch who averaged 15.5 points per game and 8 rebounds a game the previous season; 6-1 senior guard Mike Minix who had averaged 14 points and 4 assists a game as a junior; and 6-1 junior Keith Adkins, a long range shooter who had averaged 11 points a game as a sophomore. Those four players were among the top 15 players in the 15th Region, Pelphrey was among the top players in the state, and they would be counted on to carry the Tigers back to Rupp Arena. Magoffin County head coach Danny Adams just added to the pressure when he told a reporter: “They [Paintsville] have the potential of winning the state. Right now, they’re in a class by themselves.”
The Tigers began the season with three impressive wins over Jessamine County, Lexington Lafayette and Lexington Tates Creek in the Hillbrook Classic. In the finals of the Classic, Paintsville would meet up with Lexington Henry Clay and UK signee, 6-1 guard Sean Sutton, the son of University of Kentucky Coach Eddie Sutton. Henry Clay led most of the first half before Paintsville, with bountiful experience, came back and tied the game at 36 at the half. The game was nip-and-tuck the rest of the way with the Tigers coming out with a 67-63 win in front of UK’s Coach Sutton and staff. Coach Runyon praised his team after the game, “There’s just no substitute for experience. Any coach can say what he wants, but when you’ve got kids with three years experience under their belts, that’s a commodity.” The win propelled Paintsville to the No. 1 ranking in the state, the second time this group of Tigers had been ranked as the best team in Kentucky.
After losing two in a row to Louisville Doss and Louisville Southern, and losing the state’s number one ranking, Coach Runyon put the Tigers through two difficult workouts. Runyon put the squad through a three-hour workout the day after they returned home, following that up with a two-hour session the next day. He hoped that the Tigers would have better intensity for the games in Myrtle Beach, as he believed that is what caused them to lose two in a row. “We played one-on-one and two-on-two and, coupled with a lack of intensity, it spelled doom for us,” Runyon told the Paintsville Herald. “I hope we get back on track this weekend. I’d hate for people to drive 16 hours to watch us stink up the place. If we get our intensity, emotion and effort back up like we had it the first six games, you’ll see a much different team down there.”
Paintsville made the long trip to Myrtle Beach, S.C., to take part in the prestigious Beach Ball Classic, which was the number one high school tournament in the country. For their first game in South Carolina the Tigers would play national power DeMatha High from Hyattsville, Maryland, who came into the tournament as the top ranked team in the country. DeMatha was coached by Morgan Wooten, who had won more than 800 games in his coaching career by the 1986-87 season. Not only did DeMatha have a legendary head coach, among the assistant coaches for DeMatha was Mike Brey (now the head coach at Notre Dame University) and Pete Strickland (who was the head coach at Coastal Carolina from 1998-2005). The Stags were led by two High School All-Americans, 5-11 guard John Gwinn (MVP of the 1985 Beach Ball Classic) and 6-10 center Jerrod Mustaf. Paintsville, the smallest school to ever compete in the tournament, was not considered to give DeMatha much of a game, and most “experts” believed that DeMatha would cruise to its third consecutive Beach Ball Classic title.
In the opening game of the tournament, the Tigers shocked everyone, except for the Tiger faithful, and beat the well-known DeMatha Stags by six, 75-69. Senior John Pelphrey led the Tigers by scoring 18 points, grabbing 12 rebounds, and handing out 6 assists. The win advanced Paintsville to the next round where they would face Eau Claire, South Carolina, the top ranked team in Class 4A in that state. The Shamrocks were not going to let the Tigers surprise them, and Paintsville, perhaps suffering a little enthusiasm after beating DeMatha, were no match for Eau Claire. At one point the Shamrocks were up 26, but the Tigers, filled with pride, and motivated by a vigorous halftime talk from assistant coach Paul David Brown, cut the lead to four before Eau Claire pulled away and won 76-66. Pelphrey again led the way for Paintsville by scoring 29 points.
Paintsville would now play for third place in the tournament and would face the Binghamton, N.Y., Patriots. The Patriots were the defending New York State champions and were led by consensus All-American guard King Rice, who was considered the fastest guard in the country.
“It was unbelievable how quick he was,” Coach Runyon recalled of Rice. “But it was unbelievable to me how fast Mike Minix was against him. It was unbelievable to see Mike Minix get a ball at the free throw line and outrun King Rice to the other end and shoot a layup. Mike Minix was the quickest kid, with the ball, I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Paintsville was able to keep it close early and after a few minutes the game was tied at 11. The Patriots, however, were able to go on an 18-10 run and take a 29-21 lead into the locker room at halftime. Binghamton was able to maintain its lead in the third stanza and were up 41-34 going into the fourth. That is when Pelphrey took over for the Tigers. Scoring nine of his team-high 20 points in the fourth, Pelphrey and the Tigers were able to mount a furious comeback and hold on for the upset over Binghamton 53-51.
It was a total team effort upsetting two nationally ranked teams (DeMatha and Binghamton were both ranked in the USA Today Top 25) at the Beach Ball Classic. Pelphrey made the Beach Ball Classic All-Tournament team, Couch won the Sportsmanship Trophy, and junior guard Keith Adkins received the Hustle Award. With the wins in South Carolina, it appeared that Paintsville was starting to play good basketball and could be on its way to the state tournament in March.
The Tigers used their momentum from the Beach Ball Classic to win 17 of their next 18 games, including a huge victory over Clay County, and their talented junior guard Richie Farmer. The momentum carried right on into the post-season where Paintsville won its third consecutive 15th Region title to advance once again to the “Sweet 16.” The region title put Paintsville at 30-4 on the year, becoming only the second 30-win team in the school’s history (the 1943-44 squad finished 31-5). Asked about the team’s chances at the state tournament Coach Runyon replied, “I honestly feel like we’re better prepared. We’ve played a tremendous schedule this season. More than anything that will help us in the state tournament.” Coach Runyon also reflected on the careers of his seniors to the Paintsville Herald, gushing about what they had done for the program. “These kids have done an awful lot for Paintsville High School and for basketball in eastern Kentucky. They’ve established a tradition for basketball in Paintsville.”
It seemed Paintsville was destined to win the 1987 state championship and it was hoped that their tough schedule had prepared them for this moment.
The Tigers advanced to the “Sweet 16” Final Four with wins over Monticello and Owensboro before being knocked out by Louisville Ballard and their star player and future Mr. Basketball, sophomore Allan Houston.
Looking back, some 25 years after the loss, Coach Runyon recalled, “Was I destroyed that we lost? I still am. The state championship was there for the taking. I clearly think we had the best TEAM in the state that year, I really do.” He went on to laud the 1987 team, “They were the group that finally set the standard for future Paintsville teams, they finally got us over the hump of making it to the state tournament and giving the community an opportunity to go to Rupp Arena and watching Paintsville play in it. They were the group that actually built Paintsville High School basketball!”
A few weeks after the end of the season, John Pelphrey was named Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball, the top player in the state. He still had yet to make a decision on where he would play college, but was still being actively pursued by Vanderbilt, Marshall, and Louisville. His teammates, Joey Couch and Mike Minix, had already decided where they would play at the next level. Joey, an All-State football player as well as an All-State basketball player, would be playing football at the University of Kentucky. Mike Minix, an All-State baseball player, would be playing baseball at Vanderbilt University.
After being named Mr. Basketball, Pelphrey began to be actively pursued by the University of Kentucky, which easily signed him. Pelphrey would go on to have a distinguished career at UK, scoring 1,257 points, while playing in 114 games. He was defeated in his last collegiate game by Christian Laettner and Duke University in what many considered to be the greatest college game ever played. His jersey hangs in the rafters of Rupp Arena to be remembered, always, as one of UK’s “Unforgettables.”
The cupboard wasn’t completely bare, as Keith Adkins and Jerry Pelphrey, John’s brother, would be returning for the next season. But it was the 1986-87 Paintsville Tigers that would be the measuring stick for all future Tiger teams. Would a small school like Paintsville ever again have the talent to get back to the “Sweet 16?”