Over a span of six years – between the 1995-96 and 2000-2001 seasons during our Decade of Dominance in the MEAC – South Carolina State, under my leadership, made five conference championship game appearances including four straight from the 1997-98 thru 2000-01 campaigns.
We took three tournament titles during that span, in 1996, 1998 and 2000. It was an every-other-year run like the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs run of odd-year titles in the ensuing decade.
We one-upped the Spurs however, winning four titles – the other in 2003 – in eight years. San Antonio won four in ten.
NINTH SEASON (1995-96)
(14-2, Tied for 1st in MEAC, 22-7 overall)
Roderick Blakney Eric Fernandez
Miquel Burns Derrick Patterson
Jamal Brown Jay Joyner
Bobby McGowens Raheem Waller
Best Non-Conference Win vs. Charleston Southern (61-57)
Best Conference Win vs. Coppin State (81-69)
MEAC Tournament Result Won title vs Coppin State (69-56)
NCAA Tournament Result Lost to Kansas in 1st round (92-52)
Coming off a seven-month suspension on October 9th, it was time to prove myself to my new president (Dr. Leroy Davis) and AD (Tim Autry).
Several of the state’s top sports reporter’s gave their opinions of the extended suspension. A February 29th article in the Orangeburg Times & Democrat entitled “S.C. State Men Begin Tournament Play” stated, “Betrayal is the best description for (SC State President Barbara) Hatton’s suspension of the head coach. It was a feeble attempt by the University to show institutional control.”
An article written by Tommy Braswell of the Charleston Post & Courier on January 25, 1996 stated, “The problem occurred when Alexander forwarded money from McQueen’s parents to a junior college for a correspondence course. Following a lengthy investigation by the school and the NCAA, it was determined that Alexander had simply made an error in judgment and he was reinstated in time for fall practice.”
It was a relief to see October 15th come around and get back to basketball. I remembered Jamal Brown’s statement at the pool party that we were going to win it all. Well, that’s exactly how they started training camp – with a sense of urgency and a defensive mindset. Besides my 2013 North Carolina A&T MEAC Tournament Championship team, this 1995-96 Bulldog team was the best defensive team I’ve ever coached. Ironically, both teams were senior dominated and had balanced scoring.
Our best non-conference win during the 1995-96 campaign was a come-from-behind thriller vs. Charleston Southern, where we got down by 20 in the first half. I exploded with a halftime tirade that included dumping a water cooler on my assistant Ben Betts’ new suit. The tirade worked. We put on a clinic in the second half and earned a 61-47 victory.
After that win, we won 16 of 21 games before getting to the MEAC Tournament. We won ten conference games by double digits. All three of our tournament wins were also by double digits.
Our biggest conference win came late in February vs. Coppin State in Orangeburg. It was billed as the “Showdown in O-Town” with the two best teams vying for the MEAC regular season title. We had lost to the Eagles six straight times going into the game, a mental hurdle we had to get past. We played superb defense, contested almost every shot taken by the Eagles and out rebounded them 41-23.
“We didn’t think they would lay down like they did in the first half but our defensive intensity was so high and coach had us so pepped up for the game they just couldn’t take the pressure,” ‘Moo Moo’ Blakney said after the game. The end result was an 81-69 victory for the Bulldogs.
Our MEAC Tournament run to the championship was spectacular. Our first round opponents were the Rattlers of Florida A&M. Disappointed for not being named the MEAC Player of the Year, Derrick Patterson was on his own personal mission to destroy anyone not wearing a “Bulldog” jersey. Against FAMU, Derrick led us both in scoring and rebounding, netting 25 points and securing 18 rebounds in a 79-58 win.
Next up in the semi-finals was our arch-rival, North Carolina A&T. Led by the combination of Patterson’s 22 points and Blakney’s 19, we controlled the game from start to finish. Late in the second half, Blakney went on a personal 11-0 run. He was quoted after the game saying, “I looked over at coach and he gave me the signal to take the game over and I think I went out and did that.” The scoring stretch led us to a 68-46 semi-final victory. We were rolling.
The championship game was against the mighty Coppin State Eagles. What we had been all season was a great defensive team and that identity came full circle in the title game. We put on a defensive clinic. We held MEAC Player Of The Year, 6-8 center Terquin Mott to 4-of-14 shooting from the field. Coming into the game, Mott was leading the nation in field goal percentage at 66.3%.
Coppin State coach Ron “Fang” Mitchell said, “Their defense was excellent and they understood being a senior-laden team how hard they had to play.” Again, we were led in scoring by Blakney and Patterson respectively with 17 and 14 points. For his overall efforts, Patterson was rewarded with the Tournament’s Outstanding Tournament Player Award.
It was then on to the “Big Dance” where we were projected to be a 15-seed. On Selection Sunday, we held a celebration party at my home with our players, supporters and the media in attendance. What we weren’t counting on was Kansas, who was going into the tournament as a top-four seed, losing in the Big 12 Tournament Championship game earlier that Sunday. The loss dropped Kansas to a two-seed and paired us with the Jayhawks. What buzzard’s luck! Here we are, a 15th-seed, playing against a team that up until Sunday was a one-seed.
As soon as it was announced who our opponent would be, the media started seeking interviews from our players and me. I had informed our players to be low-key and guarded with their comments. Apparently, Derrick Patterson didn’t get the memo and blurted out that Kansas was “big and slow”. Before I could come in and try to clean up what he said, the comments had already hit the airwaves. Roy Williams, who was the Kansas coach at the time, told me later he used those comments as “Bulletin Board Fodder.”
That’s all that talented KU team needed. With a line-up loaded with future NBA players Paul Pierce, Jacque Vaughn, Raef LaFrenz, Scott Pollard and current Stanford head coach Jerod Hasse, the Jayhawks took those comments and literally ran us out of the building in Tempe, Arizona. The final score was Kansas 92, South Carolina State 52.
Our big supporter from Muncie, Bob Taylor, who made the trip actually was forced into work as the official scorekeeper for the Bulldogs. Bob was in hog heaven, working as our official scorekeeper at an NCAA Tournament game.
Thinking back six months, being on suspension and not knowing exactly what my future held, this 1995-96 run to the NCAA Tournament, even though we got smashed by Kansas, holds a special place in my heart. This team was special because of its character and overall team unity, and the fact they appreciated and valued playing defense.
I owe a special thanks to those seniors: Derrick Patterson, Eric Fernandez, Jay Joyner, Miquel Burns, Joe Dixon and Jamal Brown.