Addition of Jones led to Bulldogs’ only appearance in national semis in school history
Rick Stansbury’s prediction didn’t just sound bold. It was bold.
He’d just convinced junior college basketball star Donate’ Jones to sign with Mississippi State in 1995. And Stansbury, then in his fifth year as a Bulldogs assistant coach, was elated. He knew that his team was coming off a Sweet 16 appearance in the NCAA Tournament and might have found its final piece of the puzzle.
“He told me that with Dontae’ we had a Final Four team,” then-MSU head coach Richard Williams told Chris Dortch in String Music: Inside the Rise of SEC Basketball.
“Richard said I was crazier than hell,” Stansbury told Dortch.
Crazy like a fox, maybe. Jones transferred from Northeast Mississippi Community College and promptly showed a freak-of-nature type of athleticism that awed the fans inside Humphrey Coliseum all season. His speed, leaping ability and highlight-reel plays will forever be remembered as a huge part of State’s furthest journey through the NCAA Tournament.
That’s right, the Final Four.
“At the end of the day, all Mississippians are proud of what that team accomplished,” Whit Hughes, a reserve forward, told The Clarion-Ledger.
Not only did State knock off then-No. 1-ranked Kentucky 84-73 to win the Southeastern Conference (SEC) Tournament championship in New Orleans, it then accepted its No. 5 seed in the NCAA Southeast Region and proceeded to travel to Indianapolis to continue a brilliant run of basketball.
First, it avoided the famous 5-vs.-12 upset with Virginia Commonwealth, beating the Rams 58-51 behind senior shooting guard Darryl Wilson’s team-best 15 points.
It slammed upset-minded Ivy League winner Princeton 63-41 in the second round, two days after the 13th-seed Tigers upset powerful UCLA. Junior center Erick Dampier dominated in the paint with 20 points on 10-for-12 shooting.
On to the Sweet 16 for a second straight season, and on to Rupp Arena for the regional semifinals, which began with a shocker. State beat No. 1 seed Connecticut 60-55, and word of UConn’s defeat sent shockwaves through college basketball as brackets were blown up in many office pools. The Bulldogs raced to a 37-25 halftime lead and held on to win. A red-hot Wilson drilled 7 of 11 three-pointers and scored a game-high 27 points, besting UConn (and future NBA) star Ray Allen and his 22 points.
Finally, State beat No. 2 seed Cincinnati 73-63 in the regional finals. Jones led the way past the Bearcats with a team-best 23 points and 13 rebounds.
The Bulldogs were on their way to East Rutherford, N.J., for their first Final Four, and anyone who watched the games at Rupp Arena knew they’d earned it. No shortcuts.
Jim Boeheim’s Syracuse team beat State 77-69 in the national semifinals. Despite a 36-all halftime tie, Syracuse pulled away to win. Fittingly, all five State starters scored in double figures, but mistakes were costly. State committed 21 turnovers against Boeheim’s famous matchup zone defense, while Syracuse committed only five.
The dream ended, but the dream season was solidified. Syracuse went on to lose the Monday night championship to Kentucky, while State ended its season with a 26-8 record and began the process to try and do it again.
“(Then-Samford coach) John Brady said when it happened that it would never happen again in Mississippi,” Williams told The Clarion-Ledger. And so far, Brady, a former State assistant and LSU head coach, is right. Reaching the Final Four is a difficult accomplishment.
Even making the NCAA Tournament has been difficult. Those Bulldogs had enormous preseason expectations after the 1995 finish and the addition of Jones. But after back-to-back road losses to Arkansas and South Carolina in late January, they found themselves with a losing record in the SEC and somewhat pedestrian 11-5 overall record.
“Some forget there was talk of this team not making the NCAA Tournament at all when they had a 3-4 record in SEC play,” wrote Justin Strawn of Maroon & White Nation.
But the team rebounded with five consecutive wins and solidified its spot. It takes coaching, chemistry and, most of all, talent to have that kind of season. The kind that Jones provided, as he complemented returning players like Wilson (team-best 18 points per game), Dampier (team-best 9.3 rebounds) and point guard Marcus Bullard (team-best 5.3 assists) to make the Bulldogs the well-rounded team they became.
Post player Russell Walters, all 6-foot-10 of him, added 5.3 points and 5.5 rebounds per game from his power forward position. Off the bench, energetic freshman Bart Hyche (3.5 ppg) provided an offensive spark with an aggressive approach. Down low, Hughes and freshman Tyrone Washington provided depth.
But Jones did a little of everything. He averaged 14.7 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.9 assists. An eventual first-round draft pick of the Knicks after the season ended, his NBA career was limited to only 15 games, but those in Starkville will remember him forever. For example, Jones, who now lives in his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee, poured in 28 points to lead MSU past Kentucky in that SEC championship game. It not only earned him MVP honors that March 10, but it also surprised those who’d labelled Kentucky as “The Untouchables” that season because of guys like Tony Delk and Antoine Walker in the lineup.
Stints in the American Basketball Association, Greece, Turkey, Italy, Korea and China were in store for Jones after his NBA cup of coffee. But his exploits in Starkville still topped all that. His 28-point outburst led to State’s first SEC Tournament title in school history. The program has won it twice more since then—in 2002 over Alabama and 2009 over Tennessee—but the first one is the most memorable.
It was the 10th season out of 12 in Starkville for Williams, who only had two NCAA appearances but is the second winningest coach in school history with a 191-163 record. That’s not bad at all for a guy who started out as a volunteer 7th-grade coach while he taught junior-high math. He rose through the ranks as a high school coach, junior college coach and, eventually, to the Final Four. He took over an MSU program in 1986 that had gone 8-22 overall and 3-15 in the SEC and reached new heights.
Stansbury took over as head coach prior to the 1998-99 season and took it to another level that included six NCAA appearances, the last coming in 2009. Stansbury was 293-166 in Starkville.
Coach Ben Howland’s current State team, coming off a 25-win season in 2018, appears poised to return the program to the NCAA Tournament this March for the first time in 10 years. State fans would love to add another goose-bump season to the memory wall.
“The run the 1996 Bulldogs went on is easily my greatest memory as a Mississippi State basketball fan,” wrote Strawn, “and really as a Bulldog fan in general. The 2013 baseball team might have played for a national championship, but college baseball is still a long way from receiving the notoriety and coverage college basketball does. The Bulldogs were all over ESPN during their run to the Final Four, and this was a time when things like that still mattered.” H&A