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Kentucky High School Basketball Best: Part 3 - The 1940s

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Perhaps no decade in American history was a fundamental to the future of the nation as was the 1940s. The decade began with the country mired in a depression and an inevitable world war brewing in Europe and Asia. December of 1941 saw the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the almost immediate mobilization of American soldiers and wartime industry. By war's end, over 400,000 Americans were dead. Nearly 75 million people died across the globe. The United States and its allies would emerge victorious, with the Marshall Plan helping stimulate economies across Europe that led to unprecedented economic success in the next decade in America.


Many professional athletes left their respective sports to serve and high school athletes were no different. Students left school - and their basketball teams - to join the military, often staying for the duration of the conflict. Basketball wasn't immune to the war but with the United States geographically isolated sports were able to continue. Participation numbers of both athletes and schools decreased during the decade. In 1940, 541 teams participated in the KHSAA postseason. By 1943, that number was down to 474. Some schools didn't have enough players to field teams but would return to play by the end of the war. Others schools simply closed their doors.


Because of war rationing and travel restrictions, from 1943-1945 the KHSAA switched from 64 to 128 districts. In most cases, existing districts, which already tended to be large, were split in half, often along county lines. Because of that change, only district champions advanced to the region tournament. The KHSAA would go back to 64 districts in 1946, although for that one year they continued allowing only district champions to advance to the region tournament. By 1947 that format was back to what it still is today.


The Sweet 16 in 1943 is unique in that it is the only state tournament not played in a single location. Region winners were placed in four team sectionals across the state (Paducah Tilghman High School, Male High School in Louisville, Maysville High School, and Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond), with the champions advancing to a final four at Alumni Gym in Lexington.


In basketball, the 1940s marked the glory days of eastern Kentucky hoops. Invigorated by a booming coal economy, schools throughout the mountains had some of the greatest success. Six state champions came from the eastern edge of the state; Inez won the first of two in their history, while Hazel Green, Hindman, Harlan, Breckinridge Training, and Maysville all won their only championships.


Western Kentucky had their own share of success, with Brewers famously finishing the 1948 season undefeated, the last team in the state to accomplish that feat. That followed a state runner-up finish the previous year. Central City and Dawson Springs each advanced to the championship game during the decade, too.




This article is the third of ten that will endeavor to rank the ten best programs in the state during each of the ten decades of Kentucky high school basketball. There is some science to the rankings: teams were awarded 1 point for a district championship, 2 points for a region championship, 3 points for each state tournament game won, and 5 points for a state championship.


Part 1: https://bluegrasspreps.com/ky-boys-basketball/kentucky-high-school-388637.html

Part 2: https://bluegrasspreps.com/ky-boys-basketball/kentucky-high-school-388648.html#post6805328




1. Maysville (51 points)

District Championships: 9

Region Championships: 5

State Tournament Wins: 9

State Championships: 1 (1947)


One of the seemingly forgotten powers of Kentucky basketball is Maysville High School. Maysville won every district tournament game they played in during the 1940s (they were suspended by the KHSAA in 1940). The Bulldogs won five region tournaments and had tremendous success at the state tournament, beating Brewers in 1947 before losing to Brewers in the 1948 final. Maysville's 51 points is the smallest amount to finish first in a decade, perhaps a testament to the balance and quality of Kentucky high school basketball during the decade.



Maysville's Buddy Gilvin (17) tries to block a Brewers shot in the state final


2. Harlan (50 points)

District Championships: 4

Region Championships: 4

State Tournament Wins: 11

State Championships: 1 (1944)


Wallace "Wah Wah" Jones and his fellow Harlan Green Dragons were the pride of the 13th Region, winning four consecutive titles from 1942-1945. Harlan County was the king of coal during the decade and with numerous coal camps and schools dotting the landscape, just advancing to the region was a challenge. Harlan's first trip during the decade ended with a championship game loss to Lafayette in 1942. They'd beat Dayton for the crown in 1944 before a third place finish capped 1945. Jones would go on to a distinguished athletic career in three sports at the University of Kentucky, while Harlan wouldn't play in a state tournament until 1964.


3. Owensboro (45 points))

District Championships: 5

Region Championships: 4

State Tournament Wins: 9

State Championships: 1 (1949)


The last state championship of the decade was the first for Owensboro. The Red Devils have won four state titles to date and have made 44 appearances in the Sweet 16, a state record. Just like Harlan, Owensboro was led by a future University of Kentucky legend, Cliff Hagan. Hagan scored 41 points in the state championship victory over Lafayette, a state finals record that would stand for twenty years before Ron King put in 44 for Louisville Central against Ohio County in 1969 (Richie Farmer would score 51 in a loss to Ballard in 1988). Hagan would eventually be a five team NBA All-Star, would later be the athletic director at the University of Kentucky, and the baseball stadium would be named in his honor.


Owensboro 1.png

Owensboro 2.png

Cliff Hagan (18) and the 1949 Owensboro Red Devils state championship team


4. St. Xavier (43 points)

District Championships: 0

Region Championships: 5

State Tournament Wins: 11

State Championships: 0


How can a team win five region tournaments and eleven games at the state and never win a district crown during the decade? It is a little bit complicated. From 1940-1951 there were no district tournaments for Louisville city schools. Male, Manual, and St. Xavier each advanced straight to the 7th Region tournament where they then played for a berth in the Sweet 16. (Flaget would join the trio in 1946). Louisville schools such as Fairdale, Fern Creek, and Jeffersontown did exist at the time but were part of the Jefferson County school system and thus played in a different district and region.


St. Xavier and Male split the ten region titles during the decade. St. X gets the higher nod because of their eleven wins in the Sweet 16, although they never hoisted a trophy like their arch rival Male. It was close but no cigar for the Xaverians throughout the decade, finishing second to Inez in 1941 and Hindman in 1943, while taking third on two other occasions.


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St. Xavier's 1949 region champions at the Jefferson County Armory


5. Brewers (42 points)

District Championships: 5

Region Championships: 4

State Tournament Wins: 8

State Championships: 1 (1948)


Where is Brewers? Geographically speaking, about 25 miles southeast of Paducah and about 20 miles northwest of Murray. But during the mid- to late-1940s it was the basketball center of Kentucky. McCoy Tarry's Brewers Redmen won four region titles between 1944 and 1948. They were runners-up to Maysville in 1947 before turning the tables on the Bulldogs the next season. Brewers finished the 1948 season 36-0, the last undefeated team in state history.


Almost as soon as they appeared, Brewers was gone. The Redmen won a district title in 1954 and one game in the region that year, but never again advanced to the state tournament. Following the 1956, Brewers combined with Hardin to form South Marshall High School.


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Brewers players await the presentation of the 1948 state championship trophy


6. Inez (38 points)

District Championships: 6

Region Championships: 3

State Tournament Wins: 7

State Championships: 1 (1941)


Inez High had a great run in the 1930s, winning five region championships and were ranked by BGP as the fifth-best team of the decade. The ranking might be one spot lower in the 1940s, but it comes with something the Indians had never had before - a state championship. In 1941, everything clicked for the tiny school in far eastern Kentucky. Inez won an astonishing 40 games (against only five losses) and beat St. Xavier for the state title.


Inez, with only 50 boys in the school, beat St. Xavier with close to 1,200 students. Not only were the Indians up against numbers, their gym had burned mid-January and they had to practice and play the remainder of the season ten miles away in Warfield.


Inez basketball.png

Inez defends against St. Xavier in the 1941 championship game


7. Lafayette (37 points)

District Championships: 5

Region Championships: 3

State Tournament Wins: 7

State Championships: 1 (1942)


No team won multiple state championships in the 1940s but the stage was set late in the decade for Lafayette to establish themselves as the team to beat in the 1950s. Lafayette beat Harlan for the 1942 title and lost to Owensboro in the 1949 championship game. Playing in the difficult Lexington district, Lafayette was runners-up in 1943, 1944, and 1945, but because of wartime district adjustments did not get to play in the region tournament.


Basketball's game speed changed from the first part of the decade to the last. This was in part due to improved players and tactics, but also as a mimic to the style of "racehorse basketball" made famous by Adolph Rupp at UK. To wit: Lafayette averaged 41.5 points per game in the 1942 state championship tournament. The Generals would average 57.8 as runners-up in 1949.


8. Male (36 points)

District Championships: 0

Region Championships: 5

State Tournament Wins: 7

State Championships: 1 (1945)


As mentioned previously, Male didn't participate in a district tournament throughout the decade due to the small number of Louisville schools and the odd alignment. Male owned the back half of the decade, winning five consecutive region titles from 1944-1948. The 1945 club, led by Ralph Beard and head coach Paul Jenkins, beat Central City by twelve to win the state championship. Beard would go on to a sterling career at the University of Kentucky and played two years in the NBA before pleading guilty to involvement in a nationwide point shaving scandal.


9. Hazel Green (34 points)

District Championships: 5

Region Championships: 3

State Tournament Wins: 6

State Championships: 1 (1940)


If your team is called the Bullfrogs then you'd better be good. Laurel County's Hazel Green High School was always good. In 1940, they were great. Hazel Green waltzed past Highland, Jamestown, and Danville to win the 12th Region tournament. It was more of the same at the state as the Bullfrogs beat St. Xavier, Morganfield, Inez, and Ashland. Raymond Combs scored 11 points for the winners but it was very much a balanced attack. Hazel Green would win two more region championships in the decade and finished fourth in the 1942 state tournament.


Hazel Green 1940.png

Four Hazel Green Bullfrogs jump for a rebound


10. Hindman (31 points)

District Championships: 8

Region Championships: 3

State Tournament Wins: 4

State Championships: 1 (1943)


Extreme isolation in eastern Kentucky during the early 1900s led to the establishment of "settlement schools" throughout the region. Settlement schools are social reform institutions established with the purpose of educating mountain children and improving their isolated rural communities. Hindman, in Knott County, is still operating as a settlement school and focuses on Appalachian crafts and the study of folk songs.


During the 1940s, Hindman was also focused on basketball and settling any doubt of who was the best team in the 14th Region. Hindman dominated district play, winning eight of ten titles. The Yellowjackets won three region crows and four more times finished second. It was at the Sweet 16 where they had their greatest success.


No rubes - they had lost the 1939 state championship games - Hindman won the 1943 title following the unique sectional format. Hindman beat Henry Clay and Harlan at Eastern Kentucky University before moving on to Lexington where they defeated Benton in the semifinals and St. Xavier in the finals.

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