Twenty-five years ago this weekend, Mississippians by the thousands traveled to Lexington, Ky. Most wore maroon. They were there for a basketball tournament that turned into a wild celebration.
The Mississippi State Bulldogs, coached by Richard Williams, were decided underdogs against first UConn and then Cincinnati in the NCAA Tournaments Sweet 16. The ‘Dogs needed to beat both in order to become the first Mississippi men’s basketball team in history to reach the NCAA Final Four. A quarter century later, they remain the only Mississippi team that has.
Today’s column will consist of memories of that special weekend in Magnolia State sports history. There are so many, beginning with this one: Williams went head to head, clipboard to clipboard with college coaching superstars Jim Calhoun and Bob Huggins — and out-coached them both.
The specifics: State first defeated UConn and Ray Allen, their All-American guard, 60-55 behind a spectacular shooting performance by Darryl Wilson. Then, State out-fought Cincinnati 73-63 in the South Regional final.
- The Bulldogs were 8.5-point underdogs to UConn, which had won 32 of 34 games and had lived in the top five of national polls all season long. Allen, who would go on to score 24,000 points in the NBA, was a leading candidate for National Player of the Year. The Huskies scarcely knew what hit them. Both Allen and State’s Wilson made nine field goals. But Allen needed 25 shots to make his nine. Wilson took only 14 shots. At halftime, after Wilson had swished five 3-pointers, one New York writer made his way down to where we Mississippians were sitting at the press table. “Who is this guy Wilson?” he asked. “I’ve never heard of him. Where’d he come from? Does he ever miss?”
- So many of Wilson’s open shots came off bruising screens set by Russell “Big Country” Walters, who surely made ice packs a popular item in the Huskies’ locker room. Asked about all those picks in the locker room afterward, Walters said this: “That’s my job to get Darryl open. I did my job tonight. When he hits that open jumper, that’s when I get my satisfaction. That’s my role, and I realize that.”
- Wilson was a great shooter; I mean, a great shooter. He was not a great interview. He avoided microphones like wasps. And when cornered by reporters, he never used 10 words when one would do. In contrast, Wilson’s teammate, Dontae’ Jones, loved microphones and cameras almost as much as he loved to play basketball. Jones overheard my post-game interview with Wilson and took over for his buddy. “Man, when Darryl had the ball tonight the basket was as big as a hula hoop,” Jones said. “When he shot it, man, that ball was going down.”
- Williams, the Pearl native and former volunteer junior high coach in Natchez, was irritated and prickly much of that weekend in Lexington. That was mostly because he felt his team, a No. 5 seed even after defeating No. 1 Kentucky for the SEC Tournament championship, had been under-valued on a national scale. Someone asked him at the post-game press conference if he was surprised that his team dominated UConn early and never once trailed in the game. Williams glared at the reporter for what seemed like several seconds. “No,” he finally answered.
- The UConn game was on a Friday. The Cincinnati game was on a Sunday. In between, there was Saturday, when both State players coaches and Cincinnati players and coaches were available in back-to-back press conferences. Cincinnati went first and much of the talk was about how physically strong and imposing the Bearcats players were and how so many of their players could bench-press 300 pounds and more. (They did look like an assortment of NFL tight ends.) Even Cincinnati point guard Keith LeGree looked like a bodybuilder. He talked that way, too. When asked about all the screening Mississippi State did to beat UConn, LeGree said, “At Cincinnati, we’re not allowed to be screened. You gotta be tough, you gotta fight through them. We will.”
- State was up next. As you might suspect, State players were asked at length about what Cincinnati players had said about how strong and how tough they were. Walters, specifically, was told what LeGree said about screening. “Well, maybe he can fight through them,” Walters said in his decidedly Jones County drawl. “We’ll see.”
- Erick Dampier, State’s center who would bat away so many Cincinnati shots the next day, was asked about how strong and physical the Bearcats were. Dampier, who like Wilson is a man of few words, leaned down into the microphone and answered, “We lift weights, too.”
- Few words do I remember typing more than these in the final paragraph of the column about the State-Cincinnati matchup: “There is, however, one wild card. His name is Dontae’ Jones. If he goes off, State goes to the Final Four. Remember, you read it here first.” And, boy, did Basketball Jones go off the next day.
- State’s victory over Cincinnati now seems a blur, mostly with Jones running around and shooting over the muscular Bearcats. He scored 23 points. He grabbed 13 rebounds. He also blocked two shots and led the cheers, shaking his fist throughout at the State cheering sections. He played almost as hard on defense as he did on offense, which is what Williams had been trying to get him to do all season long. Said Jones when asked about his defensive effort, “I knew if I didn’t guard I’d be sitting over there on the bench by Coach.”
- There was one moment late in the game when Cincinnati was fighting back and making it close that Williams says he will never forget. One of those Cincinnati brutes came barreling down the court in the middle of a three-on-one fast break. The “one” was State’s Whit Hughes, a former basketball walk-on from Jackson Prep. Hughes stepped right in front of the Bearcat, took the charge, and was slammed to the floor banging the back of his head. Before he could get up, here came Darryl Wilson, diving on him, on the floor. They were face to face, hugging, laughing, yelling at each other and celebrating the moment. Said Williams in a conversation years later, “That moment to me epitomized that team, that season. You had two players, barely recruited, one from Jackson Prep and one from a small, Black school in rural Alabama, hugging each other and celebrating an effort play that helped win the game. That’s what that team was all about.”
The Cincinnati victory was State’s eighth straight. In a span of two weeks, the Bulldogs had defeated the nation’s No. 1, 3 and 7th ranked teams. And we know what happened next. The Bulldogs played poorly and lost to Syracuse in the national semifinals at The Meadowlands, before Kentucky beat the Orangemen in the national championship. In retrospect, the Bulldogs were due a sub-par game. They played one.
But the NCAA Tournament, as CBS reminds us every year, is all about shining moments. Twenty-five years ago this weekend, those Bulldogs certainly had theirs.