By Torsheta Jackson
This weekend as the country’s best college teams meet in the NCAA Final Four, there is one group of men who will likely be remembering a season 25 years ago that made Mississippi history.
“Now is when you kind of start realizing what we had accomplished,” former Mississippi State head coach Richard Williams said. “Something that had never been done before, not only for Mississippi State but the entire state of Mississippi. No other team had ever played in the Final Four and to this day 25 years later, there is still no team in Mississippi to have played in the (men’s) Final Four. That gives you an idea of what we accomplished.”
It was a year few will ever forget. The 1995 Mississippi State men’s basketball team was riding the wave of a Sweet Sixteen appearance the previous year but had lost three starters. It was all relatively new. The university had only been to the “Big Dance” three times including the 1963 “Game of Change” and appearance in 1991. The ‘95 team had made it farther than either of those. This team seemed poised to add their year to the record book.
Williams, a former volunteer junior high coach from Natchez, had assembled a unique group. The first six were a wealth of talent. Marcus Bullard had accepted the role of point guard, a new position for the strong offensive threat. Daryl Wilson, the team’s quiet but confident leader, had an unconventional but consistent shot. Russell Walters, an Alabama transfer, set ruthless screens. Whit Hughes, the team’s sixth man, took pride in chasing loose balls and taking charges. Erick Dampier was a 6-foot-11, 240-pound presence in the paint. And then there was Dontae Jones, a JUCO transfer who was considered the team’s wildcard. The rest of the bench was pretty exceptional too.
“If you look at the personal and basketball backgrounds of everybody that roster, the diversity was pretty remarkable,” Hughes said. “For the most part other than Dontae Jones, who was from Nashville you are talking about a lot of Mississippi and Alabama kids who weren’t high profile recruits. Some white, some black, some public school, some private school, but all coming together to compete at the SEC level.”
The group was tenacious. Tabletop tennis, spades, and pool games became friendly, but serious contests between them. “We were competitive at everything we did,” said Wilson.
Preseason was grueling. The team spent four days a week in the weight room, two more conditioning, and every day on the court.
“Our strength and conditioning coach (Richard Akins) always told us that you become the closest with the people you work the hardest with. I think everyone who was on that Final Four team would agree that he worked us harder than we had ever worked in our lives and when you made it through his off-season conditioning program, you felt like there wasn’t anything in life that you couldn’t do,” Hughes said.
That confidence emanated from the State locker room. A quiet resolve and won’t quit attitude. They were an offensive powerhouse playing Williams’s hardnosed man-to-man defense and it didn’t take long for them to prove why they’d earned their top ten preseason ranking. They dominated the regular season and were 8-1 heading into conference play. After two conference road wins, the Bulldogs headed home to meet No. 2 ranked Kentucky. MSU had beaten the Wildcats at Rupp Arena the previous year for the first time in school history setting up a highly-touted matchup. The Bulldogs lost.
“That game hurt. It really did. But with the leadership that we had on that team, we didn’t throw our hands up,” Walters said. “There was just a confident air about that team. We weren’t going to quit.”
They followed that loss with another to Alabama. The talented group had won games early but were not playing up to Williams’s expectations. He called a team meeting after the team’s MLK weekend win to address it.
“It took a little while for the team to mesh and for the different personalities to connect,” Williams said. “I asked them how many had ever read Dr. King’s speech and only a few of them raised their hands. I told them basically here is what (he) believed… we can be different, but it doesn’t mean we have to not like each other. We have the same goal. We’re all in this together.”
They won eight of the next 12 games and secured the SEC West title.
In the SEC tournament, the Bulldogs made quick work of Auburn and Georgia setting up a rematch with now No. 1 Kentucky. The Superdome was a sea of Kentucky blue expecting to see a repeat of the loss MSU experienced earlier in the season. But Jones was unstoppable. Walters remembers one particular timeout when the junior guard walked over to him to apologize for missing him open on the post promising not to do so again.
“I said, ‘Dude, don’t worry about me just shoot it.’ Dontae was just playing out of his head. In the SEC tournament, he just started clicking,” Walters said.
Kentucky was not prepared for Jones and the Bulldogs’ rock-solid confidence.
“Every game we played we felt we could win,” recounted Wilson. “Going into the tournament…that was our time to really just go ahead and say it’s time to put it together. We had a great coaching staff in Coach Williams, Rick Stansbury, Greg Carter, and Owen Miller. They prepared us for what every team was going to do, team tendencies, personnel, and what players liked to do. That’s one thing that really made us a very, very good team. Our discipline, our focus and our scouting of other teams. It showed in the SEC tournament and it showed in the NCAA tournament.”
As the clock ticked down its final minutes, the wave of blue started to ascend the stairs. “They already knew what was coming,” Hughes said.
The Bulldogs had ignited an excitement in their fan base that MSU basketball had not seen before. In the NCAA tournament, they knocked off Virginia Commonwealth in a tough contest, then handled Princeton, No. 3 ranked UConn and No. 7 ranked Cincinnati riding an eight-game winning streak into the semifinals. A line of cars could be seen from the airplane window as the team approached the Golden Triangle Airport. Fans were electrified.
“It was packed. We had one of the smaller buses waiting to pick us up and the students started shaking the bus. I thought they were going to turn it over so I told the driver to go. We actually left Tyrone Washington and Rick Stansbury at the airport,” Williams laughed.
The Bulldogs faced Syracuse in the Final Four. Thousands of Mississippi State fans flocked to New York for the matchup. Mississippi State took an early 18-10 lead including four three-pointers in the first six minutes, but the 2-3 zone plagued them, much the same way it still does to teams today. It quelled the Bulldog’s outside shooting. They were plagued by turnovers. The teams battled with MSU hoping to find the groove that had been their signature throughout the postseason. It simply would not be. The Orangemen would come away with the 77-69 victory ending State’s spectacular run.
“Anytime anyone asks me I say that turnovers killed us and that’s the truth,” Walters said. “You can’t beat a Syracuse with 21 turnovers unless you are just really shooting the ball well and outrebounding them. We just had an off night. You don’t have an off night in that tournament.
“In the NCAA tournament, you really can’t have a bad game. Syracuse was our only bad game and it was our last game,” Wilson remarked.
Two decades and a half later, it’s still tough to relive.
“I’ve tried to watch that game a couple of times and it’s tough because of the decisions we made (and) the turnovers we had. It’s brutal,” Wilson said. “I’ve gotten through three-fourths of it, but it gets tough because that was an opportunity for us to play for a national championship. So to look back now is tough, but it is a memory that we will always cherish.”
“For years, I didn’t watch that game. I couldn’t,” Walters said. “It upset me because I really felt like we were the better team. I felt like we were the only team in that final four that had the ability to beat Kentucky, but we didn’t make it. I’ve watched the whole team, but only like a half at a time.”
After the loss, Williams entered the solemn locker room and gave a speech his team still remembers. “He told us that we really didn’t know what we were doing or what we had accomplished and as we look back on it now we see that we did something special for the state and for Mississippi State University,” said Wilson.
Mississippians understood. The Bulldogs returned again to throngs of adoring fans lining the airport walkways and were met at The Hump with a standing ovation from students and administrators.
They’ve proven Coach Akins was right. The Bulldogs who labored together that year are still a closely-knit group. They all have the numbers of nearly every teammate from that year. They are part of a text message group where they regularly chat about their lives, children, and successes. Pre-COVID, they’d often meet for lunches, special occasions, or the annual basketball reunion. They are bonded forever.
“There were so many pieces to the puzzle. If you took one of them out then were are not the team that we were and that is all the way down the bench. Everybody on the bench, even those who didn’t get in were such a vital part of our team,” Walters said. “Jay Walton and Bubba Wilson didn’t play much and guys like that and the rest of the bench often don’t get the credit they deserve. From the coaching staff to the managers and even the bus driver, Eric Kenner. We were just a well-rounded team.”
Williams saw it 25 years ago. He saw it many times across the season, but one, in particular, stands out. Cincinnati was making a run late in the game. 6-9 power forward Art Long snagged a defensive rebound and had a three-on-one fast break. Whit Hughes, the lone defender, took the charge and landed flat on his back. Moments later, Daryl Wilson excitedly jumped right on top of him.
“Both of them are laughing and grinning, knowing what a big play that was,” Williams said. “That’s so special to me because you have Whit Hughes, a white kid from a private school in Jackson and Daryl Wilson, a black kid from a small rural school in Alabama and there they are laughing, hugging and congratulating each other. You couldn’t have two more diverse socioeconomic backgrounds than those two guys and there they were showing what our team was really all about. What togetherness there was on that basketball team. (That was) the one play that epitomized to me what our team was about.”