HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WDAM) - The campus of Southern Miss is quiet on the 26th of March, 2020.
Probably quiet enough to hear a basketball bouncing in Reed-Green Coliseum if you were standing at home plate of Pete Taylor Park.
It was quite a different scene on March 13, 1987 as the Golden Eagles prepared to host Ole Miss in the opening round of the National Invitation Tournament.
"I get goosebumps just thinking about it, walking down that tunnel,” said Casey Fisher, a USM guard from 1984-88.
"Casey Fisher and I went out real early that night to shoot,” said USM head coach Jay Ladner, a sophomore on the ’87 team. “We walked out on to the floor from the tunnel. The crowd erupted. I'm not sure there's a team in the country that could've beaten us that particular night."
The “Greenhouse” seats 8,095 people. Ladner joked that 20,000 have claimed to be in the building when Southern Miss dominated Ole Miss on Friday the 13th.
The Golden Eagles believed they should’ve been invited to the “Big Dance.” USM navigated the Metro Conference with a 17-10 record – with two wins over eventual “Elite 8” team Kansas State – before falling to Louisville 78-71 in round two of the conference tournament.
“We already had some good wins that year but we wanted to prove ourselves,” said John White, who averaged 12.5 points/game for USM in 1986-87. “They’re going to put us in the NIT again, so let’s do our best to win it.”
Southern Miss began by dancing all over the rival Rebels 93-75. USM head coach M.K. Turk bested his college roommate Ed Murphy of Ole Miss.
USM’s run-and-gun style of play was not exactly Turk’s style – the head coach of 11 seasons at the time. Once Turk eased up on the reins, the Golden Eagles found themselves in a much different race.
All five starters averaged at least 11 points per game in 1986-87, led by Collins native Randolph Keys’ 16.4 points.
“The city was coming in watching us play summer league ball and the word was we were going to change the way we played,” Fisher said. “Coach Turk changed the way he coached to the talent that he had and it worked out. My freshman year we would ask people to come to the games. After my sophomore year when we changed the way we played, tickets were sold out.”
“Let us go coach, let us go,” White said. “Once we convinced him – which I think is a plus to him that he listened and adjusted to us.”
USM’s reward for a route of the Rebels was a trip to Saint Louis, where fortune found White on St. Patrick’s Day.
His line drive shot from the corner gave the “Working Class” a five-point lead late in the 83-78 overtime win.
"I don't think it was a lucky shot because John White was a great shooter,” Fisher said. “But, it was a shot that luckily went in."
“If you look at the video on that shot, this is what I’ll tell you of our guys,” White said. “When I let it go you still had guys going to the basket attacking for the rebound.”
"Looked like it was going over the backboard and it came back in,” said Turk in a prior interview. “We felt after that we might be destined."
With the type of rowdy arenas the Golden Eagles played in in the Metro Conference, they were unfazed by a visit to Vanderbilt.
Despite 34 points and 14 rebounds from seven-foot center Will Perdue, the Commodores fell 95-88 in Memorial Coliseum. Keys led USM with 26 points and eight rebounds as the group largely comprised of Mississippi boys were about to make their first trip to New York City.
With a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play in Madison Square Garden, Fisher made sure Southern Miss was stylish.
"I came up with the idea to [shave] ‘NY’ in our head,” Fisher said. “And they said if we do this, we got to win. I kept saying, ‘We got this.’ The commentators talked about it. There was no pressure on us because guess what, they didn't expect us to win it no way."
Southern Miss rallied from a 13-point first-half deficit to beat Nebraska 82-75 in the semifinals, setting up a championship game with La Salle.
The Explorers were led by future first-round NBA Draft pick Lionel Simmons and sharpshooter Tim Legler. However, USM’s man-to-man defense stymied La Salle’s three-point threat – senior Kenny Siler held Legler to 2-for-8 shooting.
With the clock running down, the Eagles again turned to White to seal victory. After sitting out 16 minutes of the second half with four fouls, White entered the game during the waning moments and sunk two free throws to clinch an 84-80 win.
“In my mind, I wanted the ball,” White said. “I was so glad that I got the chance to go to the free throw line. I feel like anyone of us could’ve went up there and stuck those two free throws because we were all confident.”
Golden Eagle chatter grew to a roar that you could hear from Hattiesburg to “The Big Apple.”
“We flew back into Jackson and we were bussing back to Hattiesburg,” Ladner said. “All along Highway 49, all through those small little towns people had lined up on both sides like a parade, like a Mardi Gras parade.”
”Every little town USM fans were on sight,” Fisher said. “It was like we were rock stars."
“It meant so much to the people, not just Southern Miss fans,” Ladner said. It was a source of pride for our state."
USM’s 1987 NIT Title remains the only Division I outright championship in Mississippi.
It was the benchmark for a program which made its first NCAA Tournament three years later.
And 33 years later, Ladner’s on a pursuit to bring the passion back to Reed-Green that he witnessed as a sophomore in 1987.
"Everyone wants to be a part of winning and when we were winning, ball players wanted to come to USM,” Fisher said. “And that's why I'm so excited about Jay Ladner being at Southern Miss. Jay knows how to do it."
“Our fan base has shown they can support basketball the way big-time programs do it,” Ladner said. “We’ve proven we can win at the highest level and we can do it right here in Hattiesburg.”