Ahearn Field House and Allen Fieldhouse will forever be compared.
Well, at least by those who proudly wear the purple and white of K-State. Fans of the University located in Lawrence would likely argue vehemently otherwise.
“What’s there to compare,” so the Jayhawk fan might say. “We have the championships, the tradition, and K-State doesn’t even play in Ahearn anymore.”
But though Allen has lived a longer basketball life, and was the home to two NCAA National Championship teams (KU won its first of three NCAA crowns before the building opened), it was Ahearn whose limestone walls were first erected.
Yep, The Barn has been around longer than The Phog. Ahearn was opened on December 9, 1950. Allen wouldn’t host an event until March 1, 1955.
Those two buildings may have never been more closely linked than they were in 1988, the final year of K-State’s hoops tenure in the building named for Mike Ahearn, and the year in which KU won the first of those two NCAA titles as a tenant in Dr. Phog Allen’s final coaching home.
Two games played that year — one in Ahearn and one in Allen — will forever be embedded in the memory of those who love Kansas STATE men’s basketball and have a fondness for BOTH of arguably two of the top four or five buildings to ever host a college hoops contest.
Both of those games were K-State wins, by the way.
The first was January 16, 1988, in Manhattan. The second was exactly two weeks later, on January 30 in Lawrence. Did I already mention that the Wildcats won both?
A little backstory is necessary.
In the 1987-88 season, Billy Tubbs’ Oklahoma Sooners bolted from the gate and were ranked in the Top 10 in the country as the calendar flipped from one year to the next. They were the class of the Big Eight Conference, to be sure.
KU and K-State? Well, let’s just say that the teams coached by Larry Brown and Lon Kruger had their work cut out for them over the second half of the season.
The Jayhawks had an Allen Fieldhouse winning streak that began in February of 1984 still in their back pockets, but even the most optimistic crimson and blue supporter would have admitted it was an uphill climb early in the season.
And Kruger’s ‘Cats weren’t exactly setting the world on fire in his second year as K-State’s coach. In fact, coming into the aforementioned January 16 contest, Kruger’s team was 7-4. Not exactly a stellar non-conference mark.
Enter Tubbs, Harvey Grant, Stacey King, Mookie Blaylock and the vaunted, now No. 3-ranked Sooners.
By the end of the night, Oklahoma would be leaving Manhattan with one of just four defeats it would suffer in a 35-win campaign.
The final, 69-62, good guys.
Kruger’s crew — with stars of its own in Mitch Richmond, Will Scott and a kid from McPherson named Steve Henson — took the emotion and momentum gathered that evening and went on a seven-game tear.
But not before putting in a 40-minute performance that had the home faithful cheering so loudly that the sound waves they created literally caused the suspended press box to sway from side to side.
I was in that press box. It moved. It was terrifying and glorious all at once.
But nowhere near as glorious as what would happen in the second of those two games just 14 days later in the building 90 miles East on I-70.
KU came into the first meeting of the year between the two rivals having pushed the Allen win streak to a remarkable 55 games. K-State came in now 11-4 and confident that they, indeed, might have what it took to snap the streak.
In the early going, the two foes traded blows like heavyweight fighters desperate to land a knockout punch.
But as the contest moved inside of eight minutes remaining, it was just a one-point game — with KU clinging to a 48-47 game as the scoreboard showed 7:54 left.
It was at this moment when Richmond put his team on his back and nearly single-handedly put an end to the vaunted streak.
The talented, 6-5 swingman from Fort Lauderdale, scored eight of his team’s next 11 points on an 11-1 Wildcat run that saw the one-point deficit become a nine-point, 58-49 lead with just 4:56 remaining.
Richmond, who would score 23 of his game-high 35 points in the second half, hit two three-point bombs in that K-State onslaught, which saw Henson hit a dagger from three of his own.
And lest we forget Will Scott, the sharp-shooting transfer who would end the night with 16 points on 4-of-6 shooting from beyond the arc. Kruger’s second-leading scorer on the year was clutch throughout the contest.
KU was able to claw its way back to within six with 1:59 left, but the Wildcats pulled away and celebrated on the floor when the final buzzer sounded as a 72-61 victor.
That celebration — which was relatively short-lived as Kruger waved his troops toward the team’s cramped locker room area wedged under the Allen stands — would begin in earnest behind those closed doors.
With many of the over 15,000 fans still standing in their seat locations in stunned silence, the whooping and hollering began to echo from below the feet of those same fans.
It was the strangest — and sweetest — experience I’ve been a small part of in my life.
But as sweet as that late-January day was, by the end of March, it would be the team whose home was Allen Fieldhouse leaving a final, bitter taste in the mouths of K-State faithful everywhere.
KU’s Elite Eight win over K-State in Detroit’s Pontiac Silverdome helped propel the Jayhawks to their first National Championship as tenants of their storied facility named for their legendary coach.
And it ended K-State’s magical run in the Wildcats’ final year of play in venerable Ahearn Field House. One might argue it even ended even more for the Wildcats, though Kruger’s teams would qualify for the NCAA tourney in each of the first two seasons the team competed in Bramlage Coliseum.
It just wasn’t the same when the team left The Barn — a departure, due in part, to the same reasons Ahearn was built to replace what was then Nichols Gymnasium. “It’s not safe,” the fire marshal said. “You need more exit doors.”
And so, in an attempt to once again “beat KU to the punch,” Bramlage was built, the Wildcats made the move, and the rest, as they say, is history.
But the storied history of K-State basketball will always include two of the most magical games of my life — or any life, for that matter.
And those games were played in two of the most magical college basketball venues ever built: Allen Fieldhouse and Ahearn Field House.
Forever to be compared.