Basketball fever was running wild, and nobody had a case of it any worse than Evelyn McDaniel.
It was March 1941. The Hardin High School Blue Eagles were undefeated and were a strong favorite to win the Kentucky state championship, and Evelyn was a cheerleader for the team.
And when the Eagles, hampered by sickness that affected two of the team’s top players, were beaten by Inez in the semifinals, it seemed like the end of the world.
“I was just devastated,” she said. “One of the referees came over to me and tried to comfort me. ‘Oh, honey,’ he said, ‘this is going to pass.’ He was so sweet. He was trying his best to console me. But it didn’t work.”
All-region forward Lewis Thompson missed the entire state tournament, and guard Billy Irvan was unable to play in the semifinal loss to Inez, which went on to win the state championship in that 24th edition of the Sweet Sixteen.
If not for sickness, many observers – including UK coach Adolph Rupp and thousands of fans in Marshall County – firmly believed the Blue Eagles were destined to capture the title.
Hardin came back and won the consolation game, claiming third place. But it was still a sad ending to a glorious two years, during which coach Karl Johnston’s team lost only one game – an upset at the hands of Reidland in the First Region tournament championship – before that fateful matchup against Inez in UK’s Alumni Gym.
That young cheerleader – now Evelyn Wilkins, a grandmother who lives in Benton – is the only living member of the basketball team and the small cheer squad, which included her and one other girl, Dorothy Holland Warren.
She is elated that the team has been chosen for enshrinement in the Marshall County Athletic Hall of Fame, in a ceremony scheduled for next month. That recognition helps ease the more than seven-decades-old heartache.
“I just thought that nobody could beat us,” she said, remembering those times. “You were just as happy as a lark.”
Mighty Hardin had roared through its first 21 games scoring 47.7 points per game, a very high total for those days, while holding opponents to 17.2 points. The team averaged 40 points in its four games in the Sweet Sixteen, a record at that time.
In their first-round game, they dispatched Hartford 48-29 and then moved on past Rineyville 53-43 in the quarterfinals.
Inez pulled the upset over the ailing Blue Eagles by a single point, 29-28. Hardin then edged Lexington Henry Clay 32-31 in the third-place game.
After dropping the First Region championship to Reidland in February 1940, Hardin was moved out of that region in a reorganization of teams. The Blue Eagles went to state in 1941 as the champions of the Second Region, and ironically faced the First Region champion, Clinton, in the first round.
They were the fifth team from Marshall County to capture a region championship, following Birmingham (1932), Calvert City (1934-35) and the state champions from Sharpe (1938).
They are the only county representative to win a Second Region title in a brief tenure before returning to the First Region after two years.
There was plenty more sports glory to come after Mrs. Wilkins graduated as salutatorian a few months after the basketball season was finished. The era of great Marshall County teams from Brewers and Benton was dawning, and her first husband, Chester Ray Powell, had been a Benton Indian.
The disappointing end to the basketball season did not diminish what Mrs. Wilkins called “a great time in my life.” The basketball success was certainly a big part of that, she said. “It was just exciting,” she said, smiling with pleasure at the memories captured in mementos, such as a program from the state tournament, black-and-white photographs and various newspaper clippings.
As World War II loomed on the not-too-distant horizon, young people enjoyed good, simple times in Hardin and Marshall County.
“We’d go to the movies,” Mrs. Wilkins said. “Benton had a movie theater, and Murray. It was an easy time. We had radio, but there was no TV.”
There were the local favorite establishments, including a restaurant called the Pig ‘n Whistle, which, she said, “was like Hutchens is now.”
The Pig ‘n Whistle, she said, was open until 11 p.m. on game nights.
The love of basketball and sports in general has stayed with her over the years.
“I’m just into sports,” she said. “Always have been.”