PAINTSVILLE — I have written many guest articles concerning Paintsville basketball, its history and some of its former players. What I haven’t yet written about is the 1996 Paintsville team and the story of our state championship season. I am going to save many of those stories for the upcoming book I am writing, but because the state tournament is being played this week I have decided to write this story to show how an intense rivalry can be put aside for a while so that a state championship can be celebrated.
Most 15th Region basketball fans know of the intense rivalry between the Paintsville Tigers and the Magoffin County Hornets. It is not just in basketball, it covers all sports. Since the two schools began play in the 1977-78 season the rivalry has been there, made so in basketball by two of the most hard-nosed coaches in the 15th Region – Bill Mike Runyon (Paintsville) and Danny Adams (Magoffin County). Over the years there have been many spirited games between the two schools and a look at the first games between the rivals show how competitive the games were.
From 1977-1983, seven games were played between the schools, the largest margin of victory was 7 and that was an 90-83 Magoffin County win in 1983. Paintsville beat the Hornets in the 1987, 1989, 1990, and 1995 57th District championship games. They also met in the finals of the 1995 15th Region championship game at Sheldon Clark, which was won by the Tigers 95-66. But it was the two teams post season in 1996 that took the rivalry to another level.
That season Paintsville and Magoffin County had an intense rivalry as ever. Grayson Smith, a senior forward on the Magoffin County team in 1996 (and who later played football at the University of Kentucky) recalled, “Every time I played Paintsville I thought we would win. We all thought we would win. We practiced at levels beyond the norm to prepare ourselves to win a regional championship. We prized the competition and we starved for the atmosphere that came with playing Paintsville wherever it was.”
The teams met two times in the 1995-96 regular season, Paintsville won both meetings – the first by 10, the second by 12, but the games were much closer than that. The atmosphere in those two games were second to none, as the Hornets Grayson Smith remembered, “Both of the regular season games had incredible atmospheres. Crowds of people were turned away at the doors and the stands were full of Division 1 basketball AND uncannily, Division 1 football scouts. There was so much pure athletic talent on the floor that it was really unreal.” Paintsville finished the regular season with a 17-10 record, Magoffin finished at 14-12. Both teams realized that they would probably play each other in the district finals again and both teams would be prepared.
They did meet in the finals of the 57th District Tournament for the second straight year, and would be playing the championship on the Hornets home court. The game, shown live on WYMT TV was not as close as the regular season games as the Paintsville Tigers came out of the gate hot and never looked back as they cruised to an 89-62 win. However, what not could be foreseen was that these two teams would meet again in the finals of the 15th Region Tournament in less than a week.
Magoffin advanced to the finals with a two-point win over Pikeville in the first round of the regional tournament and a four-point win over Betsy Layne in the semi-finals. Paintsville advanced by winning by 19 over Pike Central in their opening game and then beat Prestonsburg by 14 in the semi-finals. With the region finals in sight, Magoffin believed that even with the large defeat the Tigers inflicted upon them the week before, that they had a chance to upset Paintsville. Grayson Smith recalled the strategy the Hornets planned to use against the Tigers, “Our first 6 players were all very talented football players. Our game plan was to make the game as physical as possible and as up tempo as possible. We wanted to isolate [Paintsville’s] Matt [Ratliff] and Todd [Tackett] on the top of the key and set them up with hard picks to keep them from being so anxious to guard our perimeter guys. Defensively, I wanted to meet J. R. [VanHoose] at the free throw line and start battling him for position then. We wanted to stay in front of everyone and keep Paintsville from attacking the glass and make them take jump shots.”
The 1996 15th Region championship game started out much closer than the district championship game between the two schools the previous week, due in part to the physical play of the Hornets. Paintsville led at the half 34-26 thanks in large part to the play of Todd Tackett and Craig Ratliff. Tackett went 3-for-3 from the 3-point line in the first half and Ratliff controlled the inside game for the Tigers, hitting some key jump shots. Things heated up for both teams in the second half as Magoffin exploded for 26 points in the third quarter (the same amount they had scored in the first half) and Paintsville ended up scoring 21 in the frame as the Tigers held on to a slim 55-52 lead.
The Tigers then started the last quarter on a 16-5 run and seemed to be putting away Magoffin County with a commanding 71-57 lead with just over four minutes left in the game. But within a minute the Hornets went on their own run by scoring seven and holding Paintsville to a single point to cut the Tiger lead to 72-64 with just three minutes remaining. At that point, J. R. VanHoose, Paintsville’s sophomore center, fouled out of the game with only 8 points and 9 rebounds and Magoffin looked to take advantage of the Tiger loss. The Hornets’ Grayson Smith went to line making the first free throw and missing the second, but the miss was rebounded by Grayson’s teammate Brian Helton who made the put back and Paintsville’s lead was only five.
Paintsville converted a free throw but Brian Helton hit a another big shot for the Hornets with long 3-pointer with just over two minutes left, cutting the Paintsville lead to just three. But the Tigers responded with a much needed 6-0 run with two free throws made from both Matt Ratliff and Craig Ratliff and a strong put-back basket by forward Josh McKenzie and increased their lead to 79-70 with just 40 seconds remaining. Magoffin County would just not give up and scored an “old-fashioned” 3-point play from Chris Russell and cut the Tiger lead to 82-77 with just 12 seconds on the clock. Paintsville converted a free throw and the Hornets hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer as the Tigers came off with a tough 83-80 win and the right to represent the 15th Region in the state tournament.
Paintsville was led by the play of senior Craig Ratliff, who finished with 28 points and 13 rebounds and who scored many key buckets for the Tigers late in the game. Ratliff was followed in scoring by sophomore guard Todd Tackett who finished with 20 points, 8 assists and 3 rebounds. Junior forward Josh McKenzie also had a big game for the Tigers with 15 points and 13 rebounds. Senior guard Matt Ratliff also finished in double figures with 10 points. Magoffin County, who had battled the Tigers so hard all night, was led by Jason Wages with 22 points, Brian Helton added 16 and Johnny Humphrey had 15. Hornet senior Grayson Smith remembered the loss years later, “The game was physical and fast. Many from our team say it was the best high school atmosphere they were ever involved in. Losing that game was the most heartbroken I ever was after a sporting event. I really believe a large part of the heartbreak was the fact that I would never get to play Paintsville again. The feeling before tipoff of those games was a feeling I still long for and have never forgotten.”
In the post-game celebrations many of the Paintsville players were just happy to be returning to Rupp Arena and only had praise for the Magoffin County Hornets. Sophomore J. R. VanHoose said, “It was a tough game tonight. It was a hard win… Magoffin County gave us their all.” Craig Ratliff speaking to the Paintsville Herald after the game, made a bold prediction for the Tigers after their scare in the region finals, “We’ve got a good chance to win it. To tell you the truth, we’ve got the best chance to win it more than anything right now. My prediction… we’ll make it to the Final Four. If we play well and work well, we’ll make it.” He had no idea how right he was!
Paintsville did go on to the Final Four, they went beyond it, all the way to the 1996 state championship. The Tigers shocked many people in the state by defeating Owensboro by two in overtime in the first round; beating Allen County-Scottsville by two in the quarterfinals; shocking tournament favorite Lexington Catholic by 24 in the Final Four; and defeating a strong Ashland Tomcat team in the state title game by 18.
Now, I have to switch gears as a writer. I have just given you the background to our rivalry with the Magoffin County Hornets during the 1996 season. I did that to tell you the following story on rivals coming together.
Celebrating a state championship is unlike any sports celebration that I have ever been a part of. Lots of hugs and lots of crying. It was just a very emotional time with your teammates and friends. By the state title game many of the people from Eastern Kentucky had been behind our team, supporting us and cheering us on. I had noticed that a few of the Magoffin County players (Jason Robinette, Grayson Smith, and Chris Russell) sitting in seats close to the basket during our quarterfinal game against Allen County-Scottsville. They were cheering us on, from our own student-section, with blue and white shirts on! I think one of them may have even had a Paintsville shirt on. For all of the battles that we had just been through and as rough as they had played us, it was quite a site to see those guys cheering us on! Grayson Smith later told of why they had decided to support us, “I saw and heard from many people how they hoped Paintsville would fall flat on their face. It felt only right to support Paintsville because it was the right thing to do. Not only for Paintsville but for East Kentucky.”
I didn’t see those guys again until I was walking off the court after celebrating our state championship. As I made my way back to the locker room I noticed those guys hanging over one of the railings tears pouring out of their eyes, just wanting to tell us how happy they were for us. Of course a few of us walked over to them to slap high-fives and exchange hugs with our “bitter” rivals. But that rivalry didn’t exist anymore. These guys were genuinely happy that we had won the state title. I will never forget how happy they were for us and how much it meant to me that they were there. A couple of us quickly gave them some Paintsville State Champs T-shirts that we had been given after the game and in a move that many people may have not imagined a week earlier – we invited them to come back to the locker room and continue to celebrate with us!
Once those guys came in the locker room they were greeted like long lost friends. I remember them giving all of the guys hugs, laughing and crying with us, even Coach Runyon got a hug or two as I recall! Grayson Smith remembered the encounter, “I can remember walking into the locker room as Paintsville was celebrating. It seemingly got silent with surprise. I don’t remember what I said, but I do remember saying that I was proud of them for what they had done for Eastern Kentucky.”
But that wasn’t enough, we asked them to come back to the Harley Hotel with us to continue celebrating over title. Even at the hotel, the boys from Magoffin County made it a point to again congratulate each member of the Tiger team again. Josh McKenzie recalled, “Our phone in the room rang and it was Grayson Smith calling to congratulate us individually. For a player from a rival team to call or speak to each one of us in person showed a lot of class on his part.” As Matt Ratliff later remembered, “I think it was the ultimate sign of respect when some of our fiercest competitors and most heated rivals were the first people to congratulate us… That meant a lot to me as an athlete and as an individual… We all celebrated a championship for every mountain boy that dreamed of becoming a state champion.”
Wow! What an experience! A rivalry built on mutual respect for each other and forged in tough games throughout a season, had managed to become a true friendship and a celebration of a state title. That’s why I wanted to tell this story. That type of experience is what the state tournament is all about! One of things that I remember the most of the title are those guys, from Magoffin County, celebrating with us after the game. They had become like family to us and we were glad to have them! I think Grayson Smith summed up the rivalry the best when he told me, “I have been asked so many times by so many different people to discuss why I led the support of Paintsville at the State Tournament and I guess it can be explained like this - I lived to play Paintsville and I longed to win against them with everything in me even though it never happened. So I guess maybe when Paintsville cut down the nets at Rupp, a little part of me won, too.”