Rick Cleveland

Mississippi State's 95-96 Final Four squad is still one of a kind

RICH CLARKSON/NCAA PHOTOS 
 Mississippi State's center Erick Damper (25) scores over Syracuse center John Wallace (44) during the 1996 NCAA Tournament semifinal game in the Meadowlands Arena in East Rutherford, NJ. Syracuse defeated Mississippi State 77-69 and moved on to meet Kentucky in the finals.
RICH CLARKSON/NCAA PHOTOS Mississippi State's center Erick Damper (25) scores over Syracuse center John Wallace (44) during the 1996 NCAA Tournament semifinal game in the Meadowlands Arena in East Rutherford, NJ. Syracuse defeated Mississippi State 77-69 and moved on to meet Kentucky in the finals.

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 rcleveland@msfame.com.

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