Twenty years. Nobody could believe it’s been that long.
The 1997 SEC regular-season champions were honored at Colonial Life Arena on Saturday as part of South Carolina’s Legends Weekend. That team will always hold a unique spot in Gamecock athletics history – while there have been 13 more regular-season championships across USC’s 26 years in the SEC, the 1997 basketball team was the first.
Looking back on that championship season:
The Gamecocks ended 1995-96 with a one-point loss to Alabama in the NIT quarterfinals. They knew they could have a strong 1996-97, losing only Malik Russell from their top-10 scorers.
MELVIN WATSON, junior point guard: “I think we kind of knew we had earned some respect for what we had accomplished the year before. So we had a lot of expectation for ourselves as well.”
BJ McKIE, sophomore guard: “It just started out real rocky.”
USC began 5-5, losing home games to UNC Asheville and Charleston Southern.
HERBERT LEE DAVIS, freshman guard/forward: “I don’t think the chemistry was quite there. We didn’t know who could do what.”
McKie: “Some guys were playing selfish, including myself, and we really had to look ourselves in the mirror and do what was best for the team. Everything just wasn’t meshing and flowing well together.”
Watson: “We had too many guys trying to get their numbers and not sharing the ball.”
EDDIE FOGLER, head coach: “Obviously, we weren’t doing what we were supposed to be doing, and that’s the coaching staff as well.”
HAGEN ROUSE redshirted in 1995-96. One of USC’s quietest players, Rouse requested a team meeting after the CSU loss.
McKie: “He called a lot of guys out. Hagen was one of those guys who didn’t talk particularly much about things, but guys really respected everything he did each and every day. We knew we had to hash out a lot of things in order to move forward.”
ANTONIO GRANT, freshman forward: “Nobody really wanted to point fingers, but in the minds of people, of course. We already felt like we were at the bottom, so the only way we can go is up.”
Watson: “When you have a guy on the sideline, who’s always been a team guy, who calls a meeting and says, ‘Hey, look, here’s the issue,’ we’re going to listen because we know it’s coming from a genuine place. He’s not a selfish guy. There’s nothing in it for him. He just wants to win.”
Rouse: “I don’t even think I called the meeting, personally. I don’t know how that got turned into that. I can’t even honestly remember what I said … I just had a couple of things to say and they seemed to stick with some people.
“I just said, ‘Look, they’re the leaders, we got to go as they go. What they say, we got to do.’ I can’t say that it made a difference in how we played that year, but it must have resonated with the team. One of those kind of fluke things that kind of stuck, and then we went on this huge tear.”
The Gamecocks crushed Furman, then started 3-0 in the SEC. They trailed Florida by 16 with five minutes to go before Larry Davis scored 13 of the next 18 points. McKie’s running jumper with four seconds left lifted USC to an 80-79 win.
H. Davis: “Along with the meeting, I think that game was the changer.”
Watson: “That game was kind of like, ‘Hey. We’re pretty good.’ ”
McKie: “We came out flat, we were just flat. Then all of a sudden, we went on a roll. We really came on and that was a turning point in our season.”
Watson hit a layup with 3.9 on the clock to beat Alabama and popped a 12-footer in the final 17 seconds to beat Vanderbilt. The winning streak reached 12 games, and then came the big one – defending national champion Kentucky, national TV and a capacity crowd at Frank McGuire Arena.
McKie: “Rick Pitino, Dick Vitale, everybody on campus is talking about it, professors talking about it, it was a great time for USC basketball and USC athletics. But one thing about it – you had to win.”
Grant: “You couldn’t hear anything. You could just feel the intensity on the bench.”
H. Davis: “Big, bad Kentucky coming in, pressing and creating turnovers. We said, ‘Hey, this is a team from South Carolina (nine of the 12 players were homegrown). We want Kentucky to come here.’ I do remember defensively, we were on it. We were shutting them down.”
The Wildcats’ press couldn’t stop Watson. USC’s three starting guards combined for 50 points. Kentucky spurted to a five-point lead with 1:04 to go, then Larry Davis hit a 3-pointer, Watson shot a layup to force overtime and McKie scored the game’s final five points for an 84-79 court-storming win.
Rouse: “It was just our time. It was just our season. That’s all you can say.”
Grant: “Our one-man call (against that press) was, ‘You get the ball in, you give it back to Melvin and get the hell out of the way.’”
McKie: “I still keep in contact with Scott Padgett and Allen Edwards and Wayne Turner, and they always say that spin move was a walk. It’s all in good fun.”
Grant: “My opinion at that time was, ‘The other teams are tough, but they won’t be Florida or Kentucky.’ Everybody in the locker room wasn’t saying it, but it’s kind of hard not to talk about it, because everybody else is talking about it. Walking around campus, getting all the handshakes and encouragement, it came to a point where you wanted to keep that going. We got addicted to winning.”
The Gamecocks beat Florida to improve to 11-0 in the league. Then, they lost by three at Georgia, causing Bulldog fans to rush the court. USC won the next five before its regular-season finale.
JERRY TIPTON, Kentucky beat writer for The (Lexington, Ky.) Herald-Leader since 1981: “Senior Day is the one time the whole year where Kentucky basketball is not about conquering, it’s not about coronation and all that stuff. It’s about celebrating the players, the seniors and everybody’s relatively at ease, although they still win almost all of them.”
Kentucky hadn’t lost on Senior Day since 1964 (and has only lost three since). A UK win made each team SEC champion, but Kentucky would be the top seed in the SEC Tournament. It was later revealed to be Pitino’s final home game as UK’s coach.
Fogler: “First, I’m proud to say I coached 12 games at Rupp Arena and I was 1-11. We won the right one.”
H. Davis: “We did know (about Senior Day). Coach was great at X’s and O’s, so we knew everything about every team, offensively and defensively. That was more of our focus, of course.”
Rouse: “No one beat Kentucky on Senior Day. Nobody. I think it was a given for everybody else, ‘They’d just be satisfied with splitting.’ Not necessarily us.”
Watson: “We thought we had an advantage with our five-guy – Ryan (Stack) setting screens, forcing Nazr Mohammed in pick-and-roll situations where he had to play Ryan’s 3-point shot or play the drive.”
McKie: “We already knew we could win it outright. We already knew we would still win it being co-champions, but that’s not what we wanted, and we knew we could go to Rupp and win. We really did.”
The Gamecocks led for all but five minutes. They converted 33 of 44 free throws and Pitino was ejected in the final seconds. Final: USC 72, Kentucky 66.
The Gamecocks were SEC champions.
Grant: “They were pissed.”
Tipton: “Whenever they lose, it’s stunning, but on Senior Day, especially. Ron Mercer was going to have his Senior Day ceremony afterward, because he had just declared for the NBA Draft. Pitino didn’t want to do it after the loss, but was forced to.”
ARTHUR CARLISLE, sophomore guard/forward: “Beating Kentucky twice, being the SEC champion. That’s one to me that’s like, ‘We beat them in Rupp Arena.’ That was a great feeling.”
H. Davis: “I remember walking off, and having a quarter hit me in the head.”
McKie: “It was silent. It was actually like they stayed in their seats to see if the game was actually really over.”
Watson: “We wanted to do it in the locker room, because the fans were really upset. We celebrated in the locker room, we celebrated when we got back home.”
Fogler: “I wish I had them more ready to play against UNC Asheville or Charleston Southern. I remember having a great refereeing crew (John Clougherty, Don Rutledge, Andre Patillo). You need some strong guys at Rupp Arena on Senior Day. You better have three guys not afraid to blow the whistle.”
“And I remember walking off the court, saying to myself, ‘Holy s---, we won.’”
The Gamecocks returned to an adoring crowd at the Columbia airport. McKie, Larry Davis and Watson were named first-team all-SEC and Fogler was chosen SEC Coach of the Year. The Gamecocks beat Alabama in the SEC Tournament and fell to Georgia in the semifinals, but the biggest tournament lay ahead. The NCAA selection committee chose the Gamecocks as a No. 2 seed and sent them to Pittsburgh, where they would play MEAC champion Coppin State.
Grant: “After winning the SEC, we wanted everything. Guys were just like, ‘OK, we got one ring, let’s prepare for the tournament.’ ”
H. Davis: “By that time, we felt we belonged. Watching the bracket, watching how it played out, we felt we had the opportunity to get pretty far.”
Watson: “I thought fatigue set in (at the SEC Tournament). We were kind of running out of steam going into the NCAA Tournament.
“Looking down the bracket, thinking, ‘We got a chance to make a run!’ Not realizing that we’ve hit a wall, we have to dig in, we have to work a little bit harder.”
McKie: “I think we were ready, too, but teams were really ready to knock us off. Because all of a sudden, we become like a Kentucky.”
Coppin State whipped the Gamecocks 78-65. It was only the third time in NCAA history a 15 beat a 2 (it has since been accomplished five more times). Not a year goes by where a 2-15 matchup is played and the TV doesn’t flash the graphic of upsets, with South Carolina-Coppin State clearly displayed.
Rouse: “All I can say is, that’s the tournament. Looking back on it, you can say we won a lot of close games by one point. Maybe we dodged a lot of bullets throughout and we just ran out at the end.”
H. Davis: “You can say so many things … I really think we played down to the competition. We were looking at it, ‘This is a 15-seed team, let’s blow them out and get ready for the next game.’ ”
Grant: “We couldn’t get it done through the guard positions. Our big guys were more role guys. I knew we were in trouble.”
Watson: “We got caught slipping. And that’s pretty much the perfect song for an upset.”
Fogler: “They zoned us, which was the way to play us. But I’m not making excuses. They were better than us. Coaching staff didn’t do a very good job, players didn’t do a very good job. We got beat.”
McKie: “I haven’t ever watched the game. I won’t ever watch the game. Those whole first couple of days, everybody wants your autograph, you’re the No. 1 team in that bracket, reporters want to talk to you guys, and all of a sudden, throughout the course of that game, the crowd changes and they all of a sudden start cheering for Rocky instead of going for the Russian, you know? It’s almost like you’re in a very bad dream. Except you still got to play, and everything just starts snowballing … and we all know the result.”
The loss stung, but the Gamecocks scaled the SEC mountain. USC finished tied for third in the SEC in 1997-98, advanced to the SEC Tournament championship game and to its second consecutive NCAA Tournament. Everyone felt USC had returned to the glory days of Frank McGuire, and the Gamecocks would continue to be a powerhouse.
Yet, USC would only have two winning conference seasons from 1999-2016. The 1996-97 championship remains one of the brightest spots in program history.
Fogler: “Coming off 5-5 when some of the players could have given up … I’m very proud of it. Winning an SEC championship (in the) regular season is not easy to do.”
Watson: “What they don’t realize is how difficult it is. You go from under-the-radar to having a target on your back in one season.”
H. Davis: “We had an opportunity to do something big, we really did. But things happen for a reason. All of us are still close, we still meet once a year outside the Legends Weekend, to do our own thing every single year. We have something we can hold onto for the rest of our lives.”
McKie: “I don’t think it ever put a sour ending on what we accomplished, because what we accomplished, especially at South Carolina, traditionally known as a football school, and people always say, ‘Hey, you can’t win at South Carolina. Why’d you ever go to South Carolina?’ That’s why I did – to win a championship. Yeah, we lost to Coppin State … they almost beat Texas, two nights from then. But that still doesn’t ever put a damper on what we accomplished.”
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A look at USC’s 1996-97 season, when the
Gamecocks finished 24-8 (15-1 SEC):
at Mississippi State*
at The Citadel
Home games in CAPS; * SEC game; # Maui Invitational (Lahaina, Hawaii)
^ Harris Teeter Pepsi Challenge (Charlotte); % SEC tournament (Memphis, Tenn.) & NCAA tournament (Pittsburgh)