Twenty years ago this March, perhaps the greatest run in the history of Mississippi State sports took place as the Bulldog basketball team blazed their historic path to the 1996 Final Four.
At the same time, the greatest mine of Mississippi sports knowledge, Rick Cleveland, was the columnist for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. Now the Historian of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame, Cleveland followed MSU from Starkville to New York City that season, with several stops in between. It’s through his eyes this story is told, re-living the most iconic postseason run in over 100 years of Mississippi State athletics.
Now, while the legend begins in March in the SEC Tournament, and of course ends in New York in the Final Four, the story itself starts, appropriately, on January 15th of 1996. It was Martin Luther King Day.
In the midst of a 3-4 start to SEC play, and following a non-conference schedule which included some head-scratching losses, tensions had arisen in the locker room, and the difference between the two sides was clear: race. On a team with several new pieces from the year before, the fight had slowly built along racial lines and had, somehow, come down to something as seemingly unimportant as what music to play in the locker room. Some wanted rap. Others wanted country.
“It sounds petty,” Cleveland said, “but it really was affecting the team chemistry … They weren’t playing well at all.”
Head coach Richard Williams knew the situation was worsening every day, so in a team meeting before practice on January 15th, he asked a simple question inspired by the history of that day. Who among you, he asked, has actually read M.L.K. Jr.’s entire ‘I Have A Dream’ speech? Two or three raised their hands, the rest admitting without speaking that they weren’t as familiar as perhaps they should be. Williams took the opportunity to share Dr. King’s vision and his belief that differences don’t have to drive people apart and, in fact, they can bring people together. The lesson was easily, if not grudgingly, understood.
“From that day forward,” Cleveland later wrote for The Daily Journal, “Dontae Jones, from inner-city Nashville, chose the locker room music on certain days, and Russell Walters, from Myrick in rural Jones County, chose it on others. Jones usually chose rap; Walters, country. But Jones learned the words to Walters’ country songs and often sang along.”
Within a couple weeks, the season turned, this time for the better. Once the chemistry grew off the court, things began to click on the court. By mid-February, Cleveland recalls, State was playing like one of the best teams in the conference. A month later, they would take it even farther and win the entire conference tournament itself. Somewhere in-between, the absence of any previous tensions was clear when Whit Hughes, as he so often did, crashed to the floor for a loose ball to save the possession. Moments later, Darryl Wilson came soaring in and landed on top of his teammate and in an adrenaline and joy-filled celebration of the moment. All considerations of race were gone. All that was left was a team that wanted to win.
And what a team they were.
The stars are known, future NBA players Erick Dampier and Dontae Jones, along with the team’s leading scorer Darryl ‘Super D’ Wilson. But more on them later. Russell Walters (“Might have been the best screener I’ve ever seen,” Cleveland said.) and Whit Hughes (“He did all the dirty work. I can’t tell you how many loose balls he came up with and how many charges he took during the season.”) had their roles, as well, along with the tough sophomore point guard Marcus Bullard (“A real cocksure point guard. Strong, strong guy. Really good on-ball defender.”). It was a team known for their offensive talent, and understandably so, but it was their prowess on defense that got the Bulldogs to the Meadowlands at the end of the season.
Playing Williams’ hard-nosed man-to-man defense, they disrupted every opposing offense they faced. Dampier, the gigantic center who shut down anything near the basket was at the core of it.
“What people probably remember the most about them was how good a shooter Darryl was and how talented Dontae was,” Cleveland said, “but the key to that team was Dampier. He changed the way everybody played offense.
“That State team was a really good defensive team, and not just Dampier,” Cleveland continued. “Bullard was a great on-ball defender. Darryl played good defense. The only guy that was a defensive liability was Dontae, and even by the end of the year, I remember in one of my columns saying that, believe it or not, even Dontae is playing decent defense.”
They were playing their best ball of the season to date, having won nine of the 13 games since that MLK Day meeting, but MSU entered the 1996 SEC Tournament with relatively low expectations. The hope then was to win a game, maybe two, then get ready for the NCAA Tournament. After beating a not great Auburn team in the first round of the SEC Tourney, the draw was a talented Georgia club in the semifinals, a spot where either group of Bulldogs could advance without much surprise. But what people didn’t know was that Jones was on one of the greatest hot streaks of his impressive junior season.
“I referred to him back then as the wild card,” Cleveland said. “If he went off, State was going to win the game. He was that good at the end of the season and through the tournaments.”
The wild card did go off, and on his back State won and advanced to the championship game against Kentucky, the nation’s No. 1 team and the crew responsible for giving MSU its worst loss of the season, an embarrassing 18-point blowout at home earlier in the year. However confident the Wildcats might have felt going into that game, neither they or anyone else knew that the Bulldogs they were facing wouldn’t lose another game until the Final Four.
Improbably at the time, and unsurprisingly looking back, MSU won. They took down the vaunted Wildcats on the backs of their stars, their role players and their coach who brought them all together, winning by 11 points over a team who was supposed to crush them.
Cleveland’s column the following day espoused the importance of the win for MSU, how much it meant to the program. He also wrote that, following such a performance, the Bulldogs deserved a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Fourth, at worst.
Instead, State was given a No. 5 seed and awarded one of the toughest roads to the title in the entire tournament, falling in a bracket including UCLA (the team who knocked them out of the 1995 tournament), the tournament’s No. 2 overall seed in a UCONN team led by Ray Allen and a Syracuse squad considered one of the most physically intimidating in the country.
“I thought they deserved better than that,” Cleveland said.
First and Second Rounds
While the seeding was unfair, MSU was at least assumed to have the advantage in the first round against VCU, but it turned out to be a battle to the end, the Bulldogs getting the win they wanted with far more trouble and a much closer score than they expected.
On the other side of the bracket, UCLA had been upset by Princeton and their frustrating offense so different from anything anyone else was running. That style took down UCLA with relative ease and had MSU in its sights next.
“I remember thinking it was going to be a really, really tough game for State,” Cleveland said. “And it wasn’t.”
Against UCLA, Princeton hit open layup after open layup off their backdoor cuts, frustrating a Bruin team incapable of stopping what they knew was coming. But UCLA didn’t have Dampier.
When Princeton tried to do the same to MSU, every attack on the basket was thwarted by MSU’s game-changing center. In Cleveland’s words, he shut that stuff down.
“State just flat out-played them,” Cleveland remembered. “Beat them like a drum.”
Sweet Sixteen, UCONN
This, like the SEC Tourney championship game, was where the run was supposed to end for MSU. Supposed to end. But those consistently undervalued and underappreciated Bulldogs had no interest in letting the Huskies, the heavy favorites, move along easily. UCONN had Ray Allen, who Williams calls the best shooter he’s ever coached against? That’s fine. MSU had Dontae, they had Dampier, and most importantly in this game, they had Super D, the deep-south antidote to Allen.
“Darryl Wilson was just about as good of a spot up shooter as you’re ever going to see,” Cleveland said.
And in that game, it was his turn to put the Bulldogs on his back, drawing the task of trying to defend Allen on one end and out-shoot him on the other. Surprisingly again to everyone but those in Maroon and White, Wilson pulled it off, aided by yet another huge game from Jones and a black hole in the lane created by Dampier.
It wasn’t easy, but he did it.
“What I remember most about that is that Darryl Wilson just made everything,” Cleveland recalled. “He made everything … I think he clearly outplayed Ray Allen in the game.”
Elite Eight, Cincinnati
Just like against UCONN, just like against Kentucky, and just like some thought against Princeton, MSU was supposed to lose to Cincinnati. A big-bodied, physically assertive team, Cincy was supposed to be too big and too strong for the Bulldogs to handle.
“They looked like a bunch of NFL tight ends,” Cleveland remembered.
It was so much a point of conversation that, the day before at the press conference, Dampier finally cracked and talked back to all the reporters asking just how in the world MSU was going to stop those big Bearcats.
“Well, you know, we lift weights at Mississippi State, too,” Cleveland remembers Dampier telling reporters.
It got a good laugh from those in attendance, but any chuckling ceased by the end of the game when Cincy’s strength was no match for Dampier’s length. They couldn’t bully him, and they couldn’t get over him. Offensively, Cincinnati was hamstrung. Defensively, the Bearcats had to deal with Jones, but if they stopped MSU’s star, they could win like they were expected to.
“I had a column the day of the game saying Cincinnati was favored and they probably should be,” Cleveland said, “but the last paragraph said, ‘Dontae Jones is the wildcard and if he goes off, State goes to the Final Four.’”
“He did go off,” Cleveland said.
And MSU, as he predicted in that final paragraph, was going to the Final Four.
The End of the Run
New York. The Final Four. It was everything MSU fans, players, coaches and administration had ever dreamed of. There was even the possibility of a title matchup between State and Kentucky if both teams won, a chance to break the 1-1 season tie.
Just as Cleveland was sent to the Meadowlands to cover the excitement for the Clarion-Ledger, so were actual Clarion-Ledgers, 1,000 of them being delivered daily for the length of MSU’s time in the Big Apple. Every day they snatched up, the MSU fans there accounting for each copy.
“It was like Mississippi State came to New York,” Cleveland recalled. “They sold out every day.”
The pomp, the circumstance – both were accounted for. Much as they may have envisioned it happening, it was like nothing those men from Mississippi had ever experienced. All the TV cameras, all the reporters, all the lights, attention and hoopla.
Williams never wanted to use that as an excuse, but it certainly affected his team. Whether the pressure of the moment was the reason or not, it was a factor in what ultimately came: MSU’s first loss since the magical run started in the SEC Tournament. It was the end of the run, the demise of a season executed by Syracuse, a team most who watched the game believed the Bulldogs should have beat.
In the end, it was pretty simple. For all the confidence, calm and steady-handedness MSU had played with in its last seven postseason games, they appeared to be nervous for the first time. Asked what happened in that game, Cleveland paused and considered. The right example was there, coming from the player who was so vital in getting the Bulldogs there in the first place.
“You had a point guard going against a solid defense that committed 10 turnovers,” Cleveland said of the uncharacteristically skittish State offense. “And Syracuse was really, really good.”
All good things must come to an end, supposedly, but that run was a great thing. In the minds of the team, it shouldn’t have ended until they were cutting down the nets. They were the team of fate, the team of destiny, the team who showed up out of nowhere to take down the biggest foes college basketball had to offer. But, great as the fun was, it was meant to end at the Final Four.
While the loss stung in the moment, the mass crowd of MSU fans waiting on the team when they arrived back in Starkville were indicative of what the team meant then and what they would go on to signify in the history of Mississippi State sports – they were the best, and they meant everything to a fanbase passionate about any group who could give them something to be passionate about.
Cleveland, who knows no allegiances, has covered sports in the state since he was 13 years old, and even now, at 63 years old, no basketball team in Mississippi has made it as far the 1996 Bulldogs.
“This is my 50th year of writing sports in some way in Mississippi,” Cleveland said. “Of all the things I’ve covered, that run by Mississippi State is in the top three to five things I’ve ever covered. To just see them come together and play so well and have it mean so much to so much many people.”
It was unlikely, unprecedented and unreal to those who were a part of it. And to this day, it remains unmatched.