Thursday, March 31, 2016

Rick Cleveland: The Bulldogs run to the Final Four

When the 77th NCAA Tournament Final Four is completed next Monday, 308 teams will have competed in college basketball's ultimate showcase.

And here's what you need to know about that. Of those 308 teams, only one has been from the Magnolia State: the 1995-96 Mississippi State Bulldogs.

It was my great fortune to cover those Bulldogs, coached by Richard Williams, when they toppled eventual national champion Kentucky for the SEC Tournament Championship and then ripped off four straight victories in the NCAA Tournament to reach the Final Four at The Meadowlands.

That team will be celebrated Thursday night at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum on the 20th anniversary of its feat. “Farm Bureau Salutes the 1996 Final Four Bulldogs” is a hard sellout, as it should be.

So many memories:

• Of Erick Dampier swatting away shot after shot throughout that amazing run. We should never forget that for all that team's offensive weapons, the Bulldogs' success was predicated on defense and Dampier was the team's minister of defense.
• Of Darryl Wilson hitting so many big shots in game after game after game. He was short for a shooting guard and his shot was far from text book, mechanically. It just usually went in.
• Of Dontae' Jones' swashbuckling style. During that March run, he was a human highlights reel, making impossibly difficult shots from all angles and dunks, too. Dontae' never met a shot he didn't like or think he could make.
• Of sturdy Russell Walters, appropriately nicknamed Big Country, setting some of the most ruthless screens imaginable, usually for Wilson. Sometimes, I felt sorry for those guys who ran into Big Country.
• Of Marcus Bullard, the point guard, and one of the toughest, most fearless and strongest ball-handlers to play the point. (Did you know he played the national semi-finals with a shoulder so sore, he could barely get his arm up to take a shot?)
• Of sixth-man Whit Hughes, the former walk-on from Jackson Prep, who took more charges per minute than Visa. He led the nation in floor burns.
• Of the timely contributions of freshmen Tyrone Washington and Bart Hyche, who were huge off the bench during that stretch run.
• Of Williams, the former volunteer junior high coach, who out-Xed and out-Oed some of the game's most famous coaches that March. Listen: Among the coaches Williams bested during the run: Tubby Smith, Rick Pitino, Sonny Smith, Pete Carril, Jim Calhoun and Bob Huggins.
• Of Williams being criticized by the national media for having a chip on his shoulder and complaining that his team wasn't receiving due respect. So State knocks off UConn and Cincinnati to reach the Final Four and the NCAA gives the team Final Four caps that say: “Mississippi.” Williams held one up to show reporters and said, “And y'all wonder why I've got a chip on my shoulder?”
• Of the press conference the day before the Cincinnati game when those national reporters kept asking State players over and over again about how big and strong Huggins' Bearcats were. (They did look like an assortment of NFL tight ends.) Finally, Dampier, the most reticent of all the Bulldogs had enough. “You know,” he said, “we lift weights at Mississippi State, too.”
• Of so much maroon in New York and the Meadowlands, and the amazing run finally coming to an end in a hail of turnovers against the Syracuse Orangemen, 76-68. Said Williams recently, “In retrospect, I just think we were too tight.”

Nevertheless, it was one hell of a run. And for Mississippi, it is still one of a kind.

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


Anonymous said...

Hard to believe it's been 20 year ago now. Time does fly. While not an MSU alum, I was pulling for them along with most of the rest of the state regardless of affiliation. I remember I recorded it on the VCR then subsequently forgot about the tape. Discovered it years later, but still before everything had gone DVD, and asked a rabid State fan if he'd like to have it. Made his day! I'll bet he wore that tape out rewatching. He'd been at the game and didn't think to set his VCR to record before leaving.

Anonymous said...

MSU needs to improve its facilities in basketball to be a serious contender. "The Dump" needs to be replaced.

Anonymous said...

11:03, the Hump is in good shape for a mid-70s arena. The recent renovation bought it another 20 years. Basketball is a strange animal when it comes to facilities. Cameron Indoor is garbage, yet Duke does well.

Anyway, the 2025 master plan released a few years ago by MSU showed a brand new 15,000 seat arena. Not sure that is still in play.

Anonymous said...

Rebel here, but had a great time watching that team with two of my Prep classmates on it (Whit and Rula). I got to know Dampier a little over the last 20 years as well. I hate to admit it, but only one rebel team has come as close to garnering my attention....the dreaded Valpo debacle. The MSU team remains my favorite college team ever, bc of my buddies on it. Friendship comes before State/Ole Miss in my book.

What ever happened to Dontae? I remember him getting drafted by the Knicks and blowing it. Then there were the shootings at a Memphis night club. Where is he now? Prison? Dead? Redeemed?

Anonymous said...

Mississippi State was actually a more talented team than Syracuse in that semi-final game.

They should have won and gone to the championship game.

But they froze up. The stage was too big for them.

Anonymous said...

What a great run that was and a great example of how a team is built: talent and star power, of course, but also scrappers, grinders, guys too tough to quit. The loss to Syracuse was a heartbreaker. The Bulldogs were the better team, but picked the wrong time to get out of sync. Seems like they ended up with 20-something turnovers that night if I remember. A third game against Kentucky for the National Championship would've been the icing on the cake.

@12:26, the team was recognized at halftime of the South Carolina game, a game I happened to attend. Dontae looked like he was doing fine. Seemed to be in good shape and looked very professional. The same could be said of the whole team actually, minus Marcus Bullard, of course, who was unable to attend.

Anonymous said...

Last I knew Dontae Jones was in Nashville.

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Jackson Jambalaya is the home of Trollfest '07. Catch this great event which promises to leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Sonjay Poontang and his band headline the night with a special steel cage, no time limit "loser must leave town" bout between Alan Lange and "Big Cat"Donna Ladd following afterwards. Kamikaze will perform his new song F*** Bush, he's still a _____. Did I mention there was no referee? Dr. Heddy Matthias and Lori Gregory will face off in the undercard dueling with dangling participles and other um, devices. Robbie Bell will perform Her two latest songs: My Best Friends are in the Media and Mama's, Don't Let Your Babies Grow up to be George Bell. Sid Salter of The Clarion-Ledger will host "Pin the Tail on the Trial Lawyer", sponsored by State Farm.

There will be a hugging booth where in exchange for your young son, Frank Melton will give you a loooong hug. Trollfest will have a dunking booth where Muhammed the terrorist will curse you to Allah as you try to hit a target that will drop him into a vat of pig grease. However, in the true spirit of Separate But Equal, Don Imus and someone from NE Jackson will also sit in the dunking booth for an equal amount of time. Tom Head will give a reading for two hours on why he can't figure out who the hell he is. Cliff Cargill will give lessons with his .80 caliber desert eagle, using Frank Melton photos as targets. Tackleberry will be on hand for an autograph session. KIM Waaaaaade will be passing out free titles and deeds to crackhouses formerly owned by The Wood Street Players.

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This is definitely a Beaver production.

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