Panthers reunite 20 years after state title
by Cris Ritchie
HAZARD – In 1993, students at Dilce Combs High School knew their school was slated for consolidation the following year. The boys’ basketball team, however, had no plans of going away quietly.
Twenty years ago this week, the Panthers came into the state All “A” tournament with a head of steam. They started the season 8-8, but won their next eight straight, the final of which a 78-51 win over Hazard in the 14th Region All “A” championship. Cavanaugh Trent, Heston Beverly, and Kevin Campbell combined for 55 points to overtake the Bulldogs.
Their next stop would be in fabled Rupp Arena against Pikeville, a team Trent noted this week was perhaps the only team in the state tournament the Panthers matched up with. Dilce Combs’ tallest starter, Chris Slaven, stood at just six feet two inches.
After downing Pikeville 58-50 in the first round, Dilce Combs would advance to take on a perennial powerhouse in Lexington Catholic, a top-ranked team for much of the season. Few people likely expected it when Dilce Combs came away with the 77-73 victory.
“We actually were a lot smaller than the other teams there,” remembered Beverly. “We were picked to maybe win the first game.”
A 68-60 win over Caverna put Dilce Combs into the finals against Fulton County, played at McBrayer Arena in Richmond. It was a game the late Herald columnist Richard “The Big Dipper” Blount labeled a classic.
Fulton County held a one-point lead with less than a minute on the clock when Fulton’s Jerome Herald drove to the basket. Kevin Campbell stepped in and took a charge, giving the Panthers the possession and a chance to win the title.
The Panthers ran a weave, with Trent, a junior, drilling a jumper with six seconds left. Fulton County got another shot at the basket, but it came up short, and the Panthers etched their name into the history books.
“It was just a great opportunity for us east Kentucky boys to go down there and get a lot of recognition, well-deserved recognition,” Beverly said this week. “We had put in a lot of hard work, and played a really tough schedule just to get there.”
Beverly was named the tournament MVP after scoring 24 points against Fulton County, and 83 during the course of the tournament. He was also named to the all-tournament team, along with Trent and Campbell.
The Panthers’ support during the tournament was astounding, Beverly said, especially for such a small school from a small community. And that support crossed district lines, as Hazard and M.C. Napier fans were in attendance as well to cheer on the Panthers, something Blount documented in the Feb. 11, 1993 edition of the Herald.
“When you walked into that gym there would be eight or nine thousand Dilce Combs fans there, just there to cheer on their team,” Beverly said. “The support for such a small school was so tremendous. It was so unbelievable.”
Trent, who coached for a time at Whitesburg and now works as the athletic director for Knott County Schools, said the Panthers still hold the record in the tournament for the number of fans to watch a championship game.
“It really amazed me,” he said.
The Panthers’ appearance in the All “A” state tournament in 1993 was the first in any state tournament for a Dilce Combs team since 1954, when the team won the 14th Region title to advance to the Sweet 16. And, Trent added, it was the first state title captured by a 14th Region boys’ basketball team of any kind since the Carr Creek Indians did it in 1956.
But perhaps what the players realized the most this week is that their title hasn’t been forgotten; that much was evident Thursday evening as they reunited during halftime of the match-up between Perry and Knott Central. There was some Panthers green intermingled with the Perry Central red in the stands, and a loud ovation as many of the team’s players, coaches, and cheerleaders were introduced.
“Some of the guys I haven’t seen in probably 10 years,” Trent said. “So it was real good to just bring back those memories and what a good time it was, and how the community came behind us and supported us.”
“It was a really good opportunity to get back together with those guys,” Beverly added. “A lot of good, good memories came back.”
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