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Remembering USM’s NIT Title and the Rule Change That Made It Happen

Courtesy of USM.

Randolph Keys played in 241 games in the NBA and many more in Europe. But the first-round draft pick is not often asked by people in his home state what it was like to defend Michael Jordan or Larry Bird. Even rarer does someone talk to him about the food in Italy, the Eiffel Tower in France, or the Running of the Bulls in Spain.

What the residents of the Magnolia State want him to discuss is the four years he spent at Southern Mississippi, particularly the 1986-87 season. That’s when the Golden Eagles, two years removed from a 7-21 campaign and profiting from a controversial rule change, soared to an improbable championship in the National Invitation Tournament.

“Every time I’m back in town, it seems like it all happened yesterday,” said Keys, a Collins, Miss. native. “Not almost 30 years ago.”

The 6-8 Keys was one of four freshmen to arrive in Hattiesburg in the fall of 1984. Casey Fisher, a 6-2 floor general, came from nearby Utica. The pair of small-town Mississippi boys joined incoming forwards John White of Louisville and Derrek Hamilton of Mobile, Ala. During their freshman year, though, the Eagles were far from Golden, having won only a quarter of their games under legendary coach M.K. Turk.

“Southern Miss is a football school, so there wasn’t a lot of excitement back then,” said Fisher. “We had the talent, but we were young and didn’t know how to close games.

“We’d have bigger crowds watching us play pick-up during the offseason than we did at Reed Coliseum. That summer after our first year, I approached Coach Turk and begged him to cut us loose. He listened, and he changed his coaching style to let us play more freely.”

Unbeknownst to the Golden Eagles, a new rule in college basketball would also facilitate their turnaround. And sooner than later, game tickets were hard to come by.

Courtesy of USM.

Randolph Keys enjoyed a journeyman career as a pro after leaving Southern Miss.

The 3-point line debuted in 1986-87 – when Keys, Fisher, White, and Hamilton were juniors – and it was embraced with about as much enthusiasm as a migraine. Dismissed as a gimmick, the arc was introduced by the NCAA amidst harsh criticism from coaches. Never mind that the trifecta has since become a crowd-pleaser on par with the dunk. In the mid-1980s, it was scoffed at by traditionalists like Indiana’s Bobby Knight. What became clear as the season progressed was that the 3-pointer was an instrument of the underdog, a weapon with equalizing power.

If ever a team needed the benefits that the shot provided, it was Southern Mississippi. When the NIT brackets were released in March, no one outside Hattiesburg gave the steadily improving Golden Eagles a chance to bring home the trophy. With a .500 record in the rugged Metro Conference – which included Louisville, Memphis State, and Florida State – their resume was the very definition of average.

To its credit, though, Southern Mississippi was connecting on 40 percent of its shots from distance.

Kenny Siler, a 6-3 slasher from the Florida Panhandle, was the only senior in a starting lineup that was as country as cornbread. All five averaged double figures for USM, which racked up 82 points per outing.

In the first round, Southern Mississippi met in-state rival Ole Miss for the first time in 18 years. The game sold out in 13 hours, as the Golden Eagles, behind White’s 21 points, pounded the Rebels, 93-75. USM then hit the road to eliminate St. Louis in overtime and Vanderbilt in the quarterfinals to punch its ticket to New York City. In both wins, the Eagles combined to shoot 19-for-38 from long range.

Against Nebraska in the semifinals at Madison Square Garden, Keys and White scored all of USM’s points during a 15-2 second-half spurt that enabled the Eagles to fly away with an 82-75 victory.

La Salle and freshman sensation Lionel Simmons awaited Southern Mississippi in the championship. Interestingly enough, Explorers coach Speedy Morris vehemently opposed the addition of the 3-point line, although his team, with future NBA sniper Tim Legler firing away, had gradually fallen in love with it.

“I remember when the season started we played Penn State down in a tournament in Miami,” said Morris. “We made more field goals and free throws than them, but lost because they had more threes. That could never happen before.

“I was very much against it, and I was vocal about it. I got a letter from the rules committee, and took a lot of heat from my AD for letting my feelings known.”

It took several years before basketball analysts began using the phrase You live by the three; you die by the three. But La Salle’s ice-cold performance in the final may have been the genesis behind such basketball wisdom.

The Explorers shot 4-for-24 from beyond the arc, while the Golden Eagles hit 11-for-24. Not even the heroics of Simmons – who became the only player in NCAA history to tally more than 3,000 points and 1,100 rebounds in his career – could save the Explorers. That night, he struck for 34 points.

Southern Mississippi prevailed, 84-80, as Fisher scored all 18 of his points from behind the line.

Courtesy of USM.

Casey Fisher loved the open space created by the 3-point line that enabled him to penetrate the lane.

“They gave us a little liberty on our outside shot,” the late Turk said after the win. “It’s amazing how 3-pointers can turn a little lead into a large lead.”

For a point guard who liked to penetrate, Fisher had always welcomed the rule change with open arms.

“The 3-point line spread the floor for us, and it catered to our strengths as individuals,” said Fisher, who lives in Vicksburg after having parlayed his time as a chaplain’s assistant in the military to a career in the ministry. “What we lacked in size, we made up for with versatility. Everyone could shoot, so the defense was forced to defend the perimeter, and it opened up lanes to the basket.”

Keys, whose norms of 16.4 points and 7.9 boards led the team in each category that winter, was named the tournament’s MVP.

“Southern Mississippi had been through a lot of struggles,” said Keys, now a resident of Charlotte and the founder of a day care for single parents. “For us to bring a title home to Hattiesburg, it meant a lot. We had some ups and downs, but Coach Turk let us be ourselves. We became such a close group of guys, like a family, and to achieve something special with your brothers was something I’ll never forget.”

Courtesy of USM.

As seniors the following winter, Derrek Hamilton and his teammates could not duplicate the success they experienced as juniors.

Whereas college basketball’s elite, the power-conference dwellers, view the NIT as a consolation prize, Southern Mississippi sees it as anything but. Now a mid-major with little championship hardware on its shelves, USM has never won an NCAA Tournament game, having qualified for the Big Dance just three times (1990, 1991, and 2012).

Such history only makes the NIT crown the Golden Eagles captured even more extraordinary. Age and time have burnished the legacy of Keys and his comrades.

The media seized upon the story of Rick Pitino’s Providence Friars in 1986-87, and how they rode Billy Donovan’s hot hand and attempted an astonishing 19.6 treys per game en route to the Final Four. (The national average was just 9.2.)

Older Mississippians, however, remember how USM was also ahead of the curve. They remember how the Eagles harnessed the power of the 3-ball decades ago to cut down the nets in New York City. The Eagles shot 41-for-90 (46 percent) in their five tournament victories.

A revolution was indeed afoot. Basketball and Southern Mississippi have never been the same since.

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