College fans recall experiences from MSU’s 1996 tourney run

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 31, 2016

NATCHEZ — The most memorable moments of March Madness are the miraculous, improbable upsets.

The most remembered game of 1996 NCAA Tournament, perhaps, is when No. 13 seeded Princeton knocked off defending national champion and No. 4 seed UCLA in the Round of 64.

Four Natchez men remember the same team for a different reason and a different outcome.

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Mississippi State knocked out the Ivy league Cinderella during its 1996 Final Four run. Bulldog alumni Scott Kimbrell, Pat Burns, Billy Gillon and Earl Hunt will get to see that same team again in Jackson today, where the 1995-96 Bulldogs will be honored at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.

“I’m sure (the team) will be like us,” Kimbrell said. “A little older, a little grayer and a little fatter.”

Twenty years have passed since the team, coached by Richard Williams and led by the future NBA draft picks Erick Dampier and Dontae’ Jones played Syracuse in the semifinal of the NCAA Tournament.

That season, Mississippi State won the SEC Tournament by beating Kentucky — which would go on to win the NCAA Tournament as a No. 1 seed — in the conference finals in New Orleans.

“My wife and I were in New Orleans for the SEC Tournament,” Kimbrell said. “Kentucky had always been the favorite and we weren’t sure how well (the Bulldogs) would play. Mississippi State started playing very well at the time and they became a special team.”

The Bulldogs entered the NCAA Tournament as a No. 5 seed, going through Virginia Commonwealth in the round of 64, followed by Princeton in the round of 32.

Mississippi State drew the Southeast Region’s No. 1 seed Connecticut in the Sweet 16. The Bulldogs upset future two-time NBA champion Ray Allen and the Huskies, 60-55, and moved on to face No. 2 Cincinnati in the Elite Eight,

“I remember Cincinnati had been playing so well I didn’t think (Mississippi State) had a chance,” Kimbrell said.

Mississippi State beat the Bearcats 73-63 and are still the only Mississippi college or university to advance to the Final Four.

“I have to believe that (the stadium) was full; there were not a lot of tickets,” Kimbrell said. “We decided since we made the trip, we would watch all three games.”

The Natchez Hail State alumni were hardly alone. The hotel they stayed at in New York City was full of Mississippi State fans and old friends from their graduating classes.

“They had a chartered plane that we went on,” Gillon said. “We had decent seats. At the hotel, there were a number of us. We knew one another from State and going to football games.”

The Bulldogs would lose to Syracuse, 77-69. Gillon said he flashed back to the Final-Four game of 20 years ago when he saw Jim Boeheim and his squad come from behind to beat Virginia Sunday.

“I told my wife I had seen that 20 years ago,” Gillon said.

Gillon still regularly attends Mississippi State basketball games and saw the women’s team open this year’s tournament in Starkville.

Gillon saw the 1996 men’s team this season when they were honored at a Bulldogs’ men’s basketball game during the regular season, but he looks forward to reminiscing with one of Mississippi State’s great programs at a more personal setting today.