When Doc Sadler was the head coach at UTEP, his team won a conference championship game, propelling the Miners into the NCAA Tournament. When he was at Nebraska, Sadler’s Cornhuskers once knocked off the No. 1 team in the country, Texas.
Those landmark victories, Sadler said, had nothing on the victory his first Southern Miss team won last Saturday night. In this most forgettable of USM seasons, the Golden Eagles’ 63-60 over UTEP rates as Sadler’s most memorable of victories.
It also ranks as the most improbable. In the overall scheme of things, it meant little. But for a team and a coach who have had so little to smile about, it meant the world.
Understand: On Jan. 10, USM played at UTEP and was utterly embarrassed. The final score was 74-40, but it was worse than that. Hattiesburg native Tim Floyd’s Miners led 40-15 at halftime.
Understand: The Miners’ roster includes seven players 6 feet, 7 inches or taller. The depleted USM roster includes no player taller than 6’6”. The Miners were 19-8; the Eagles were 8-19.
Understand: With 11 minutes left to play last Saturday night, UTEP held a 24-point lead and some USM fans were already heading for the exits.
They missed history.
USM has played basketball for 103 years. Never in a century plus three, had a USM team overcome such a large deficit. Never.
“When we were down 24, I told the guys let’s just try to get it down to 15 before the under-eight minute timeout,” Sadler said. “They did that and a lot more.”
USM outscored UTEP 35-8.
“When you consider everything this team has been through this season, it’s, well, I can’t really describe it,” Sadler said. “When it was over I just kind of stood there and said, ‘what just happened?’
“Give the players all the credit. They could have packed it in a long, long time ago.”
USM could have packed it in when the starting point guard and the starting center were declared ineligible. The Eagles could have packed it in when the school self-imposed a post-season ban, which means USM won’t compete in the conference tournament. They could have packed it in when they lost nine straight games and 14 out of 15. They could have packed it in when they faced the indignity of indignities, finishing a game with only four players on the floor. That made national news.
So, yes, give the players credit. Quitters, they aren’t.
But give Sadler credit, too. This wasn’t what he had in mind when he took the USM job.
Oh, he knew he was inheriting a depleted roster with not a single starter back from Donnie Tyndall’s last USM team that finished 29-7. What he didn’t know was that he was inheriting all sorts of other problems that would further gut the roster.
An NCAA investigation into Tyndall’s USM regime continues. Bill McGillis, the USM athletic director, says the school is cooperating fully and “fact-finding is ongoing.”
Obviously, Sadler will have to recruit this spring with that dark, evil cloud hanging over his head.
The good news: He loses only one senior. The bad news: Chip Armelin, that senior, is his best player, the leading scorer in Conference USA in league games.
McGillis, a guy who always looks for the silver lining, says the stunning victory over UTEP is proof there is one.
“Having Doc, an experienced coach who has seen about everything, to navigate us through this is comforting,” McGillis says. “Obviously, the players trust him. They believe in him. He has the combination of being a good teacher but also being fun to be around. He’s going to get us through this.”
Says Sadler, “We’ve got a long way to go. But from a standpoint of building some trust and a belief in each other, we’ve come a long way, too.”
From 24 points down with 11 minutes to play against a really good team? I’d say so.
Rick Cleveland firstname.lastname@example.org is executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.