Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Cleveland: On Mississippi State Versus USM Basketball Rivalry

RickClevelandThe recent report that Mississippi State and Southern Miss will renew their basketball rivalry came as welcomed news to this observer.

State and USM will play four games over the next four Decembers, all in Mississippi Coliseum in the Capital City. Good for State. Good for USM. Good for Jackson. Good for Mississippi basketball.

This year’s game will come not quite 54 years after I first saw the two teams play in January of 1963 in what was then the sparkling, new Mississippi Coliseum. Now seems a good time to reminisce.

John F. Kennedy was president. Ross Barnett was the governor. Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer Babe McCarthy was the State coach. Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer Lee Floyd coached the then-Mississippi Southern Southerners.

To a 10-year-old future sports writer, the so-called Big House really did seem huge back then. So did the crowd that packed what was then by far the biggest arena in the state.

This was just two months before Mississippi State would defy Barnett’s orders and leave the state to play integrated Loyola in the NCAA Tournament. That State team, which featured future Hall of Famers Red Stroud and Doug Hutton, was heavily favored and for good reason.

McCarthy’s Bulldogs were terrific. They had been champions of the Southeastern Conference in three of the previous four seasons, but weren’t allowed to compete in the NCAA Tournament because of the state’s stance on segregation. The 1962-63 Bulldogs might not have been McCarthy’s best team but they were a mighty good one.

Floyd was in his first season back at Southern after leaving the school and the coaching profession eight years earlier to go into private business. The Southerners were rebuilding, but they did feature two outstanding guards in Jackie Laird and Charlie Payne.

From the opening tip, it was obvious that State wasn’t going to have an easy time. Laird and Payne matched Stroud and Hutton shot for shot. The Bulldogs held a narrow lead at halftime and the game remained close until the final moments. The Southern fans, sensing a huge upset, were really into it. I mean, really into it.

Back then, fans on the lower rows of the coliseum sat in metal, folding chairs. (I think some of those same chairs are still used on press row to this day.) Late in the game, with State holding a narrow lead, an official whistled Southern for a foul near the sideline.

I’ll never forget what happened next. A Southern fan (seated right in front of me) stood, reached back and grabbed his chair, lifted it over his head, and then heaved it at the official. Thankfully, he narrowly missed, wide left. While State shot free throws, police officers escorted the offending fan from the Coliseum. He wasn’t around when the final buzzer sounded in a 62-52 State victory.

Other than that one incident, the game was what in-state rivalries should be: well-attended, hotly contested, meaningful.

The Golden Eagles and Bulldogs have played several memorable games over the years, including Southern’s 65-60 victory over State the following season.

Perhaps the best of all the State-USM games came in December of 1995, three months before Richard Williams’ Bulldogs would win the SEC Tournament, advance through four straight games in the NCAA Tournament and eventually reach the Final Four at The Meadowlands.

That game, too, featured Hall of Fame coaches, Williams and USM’s M.K. Turk. That wasn’t one of Turk’s better USM teams, but the Golden Eagles played as if their lives depended on the outcome that night and were boosted by sellout crowd at Green Coliseum. State needed an overtime to win 72-69. Again, the game had all the ingredients of what an in-state rivalry should be.

Ben Howland currently is rebuilding State’s program. Doc Sadler, through no fault of his own, is trying to pick up the NCAA probation-ravaged pieces at USM. No matter, their meeting on Dec. 19will add some spice to the non-conference basketball schedules of both. That’s what in-state rivalries do.

Rick Cleveland is a syndicated columnist and historian at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum. His email address is rcleveland@msfame.com.

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