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From the Press Box with John Cox - Talking about the 1949-50 Cinderella Kids

Jan. 19, 2018

There have been some many unforgettable moments in the history of Southern Miss basketball and many extraordinary performances by those that have donned the Black and Gold. But few people remember one of the greatest seasons in school history—a season that ended in a championship and started the modern era of Southern Miss basketball.

The very first basketball game played by what is now known as Southern Miss, would occur, just four months after the school opened its doors in the fall of 1912. The coach of that first team was Ronald J. Slay, a science professor on the faculty, who had been appointed athletic director by President Joseph Cook and had coached the school’s first football team the previous fall. The schedule for that inaugural season of 1912-13 basketball featured just three games, all against Mississippi College with Normal capturing all three of those meetings.

But it wasn’t until the years following World War II that the school began to take the sport more seriously and began looking for a coach that could help put the school on the map.

This is a story of how an improbable team and their innovative coach with an exciting style, a new facility, and some of the school’s best players gave Southern its first taste of basketball glory

Reed Green, who had played and coached football at Southern and had played basketball and coached the team as well, became the school’s first full-time athletic director in 1949. One of the things on his agenda was to begin building the school’s basketball program by taking the first true steps towards making a commitment to the sport, and was determined to hire a full-time basketball coach.

Green knew that he had find a coach capable of recruiting top players from the state and region and even nationally, if the college’s basketball program was to become competitive. An increase in the money allocated to basketball, including scholarships, plus their own playing facility were all things that Green was determined to provide the new coach. He didn’t have to look far to find the man he was looking for in Lee Floyd, who had been coaching less than two hundred miles away at Pensacola (Florida) Naval Air Station. It was a move that would revolutionize the school’s basketball program and put it on the map.

Floyd became Mississippi Southern head coach for the 1949-50 season. A native of El Paso, Texas, he had attended Texas Western (now UTEP) where he lettered in football and basketball. His senior year he was elected team captain of the basketball squad and led the Border Conference in scoring. Floyd had been a star swimmer, an outstanding boxer and gymnast.

Floyd’s teams at Pensacola Naval Air Station had played college varsity teams and the Fliers had captured two district and regional crowns including the Naval Air Training League Title. It had been on a road trip to play at Southern the previous year that he renewed his acquaintance with Dr. C.E. McCarver, a professor on the Southern faculty who arranged an interview with Green. Green liked what he heard and as a result Floyd became the new head basketball coach.

The 1949 “Cinderella Kids” as the team began to be called brought a new brand style of basketball to Southern by astounding all the experts with a thrilling almost unbelievable stretch drive to a 1949-50 Gulf States Conference crown. Although Floyd’s team had been picked last in pre-season conference poll he was able to take a small nucleus of two seniors and several newcomers and rolled over such conference contenders as Spring Hill and Southeastern Louisiana.

Along with introducing his exciting style of fast break basketball to the state of Mississippi, one that would soon be copied by many other schools, Floyd awarded the school’s first scholarships in basketball. Of the five scholarships given two full scholarships were granted to 5-11 freshman guard Jack Gallagher of Indianapolis, Indiana and 6-0 freshman forward Tom Bishop of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, while the other three were divided among six players. Bishop, who would become the school’s first Little All-American and the “Cinderella Kids” won the hearts of the fans through their trick plays, fast break passing, aggressive defense and an exciting style of play.

The only two players returning from the 6-10 team of 1948-49 which finished 8th in the Gulf States Conference were James Ray Carpenter and Hindu Reynolds, while other newcomers included Billy Allgood, Kenny Curtiss, Jack Hill, and Wyatt Tullos.

No one-- even Floyd was ready for what was about to happen.

The Floyd era at Mississippi Southern certainly did not begin the way he would have liked when they lost their season opener 39-33 to the coach’s former team, Pensacola Naval Air Station on December 3 at the Hattiesburg High gym. But Floyd would get his first win six days later when they opened their Gulf States Conference season with a stirring 56-48 home victory over Louisiana College as Bishop scored 26 points that night.

Then utilizing their rousing never give up style of play, Mississippi Southern defeated Spring Hill 60-59 on December 10 in Mobile and served notice to the rest of the league that they should not be over looked. Before a large and partisan Badger crowd that sat stunned throughout most of the contest, Floyd’s team racked up its second straight GSC win.

The Southerners dropped their second game of the season on December 13 when the Southwestern Louisiana Bulldogs (now Louisiana-Lafayette) came from behind to win 49-42 at the Hattiesburg High gym, then the following day traveled to Pensacola, Florida for a rematch with Pensacola Naval Air Station.

The Southerners looked to avenge the earlier loss to the Fliers. It was a homecoming of sorts for Floyd and Gallagher who had been a part of the Navy team the year before. In the game Floyd used his entire squad in running up the score and winning 56-48. The victory sent Southern into a three week Christmas break with a 3-2 record.

Coach Floyd and the Southerners returned from the Christmas break to play the first basketball game in the school’s new Sports Arena on January 7 when they hosted Southeastern Louisiana in a GSC game.

The Sports Arena had been a long awaited dream of the school and the athletic department, which had used the Demonstration School Gym on campus and the Hattiesburg High gym primarily in the post-war years as their home court. The new Sports Arena enabled the college to schedule home games on their campus and get more involvement from the students, faculty and staff. The Sports Arena boasted approximately 4,000 seats for basketball surrounding the court, a maple wood floor, glass backboards and Madison Square Garden style lights.

The Sports Arena was constructed on campus after a year of negotiations with the War Assets Commission. Moved from Camp Shelby in late 1949 the facility cost Southern $146,000. The State Building Commission provided $150,000 for dismantling, moving and construction. The facility was made available to Southern partially due to the influence of United States Senator James Eastland, United States Representative William Colmer and Governor Fielding Wright.

The building had been dedicated on November 11, 1949, when Horace Heidt and his Musical Knights band and his “Stars on Parade” presented a three-hour program. The facility was officially designated as the Physical Education Building for men. 

No matter what they would do the rest of the season the 1949-50 Mississippi Southern basketball squad would always be able to say they christened the new Sports Arena with a victory over Southeastern Louisiana. Some 2,500 fans packed the field house and with a pep band, an all-girl pep squad on hand to cheer the Southerners on, plus Miss Tommye Morris, the band’s outstanding majorette giving a twirling exhibition during halftime, the atmosphere was the best anyone could remember at a Southern basketball game. The Southerners finally had a true home and it quickly became a place where opponents didn’t want to play.

Southern took a 30-22 halftime lead that the Lions could never overcome. Their skillful execution of the fast break pushed the Southerners out in front in the first half and time after time they sent three men sprinting down the court passing for easy baskets. On many instances during the first half it was either guard James Ray Carpenter or forward Jack Gallagher that ended up driving in for the easy shot.  The 57-47 win gave Southern a 4-2 record on the year.

Southern won their third in a row when they knocked of Spring Hill 52-48 at the Sports Arena on January 10, the second win of the year over the Badgers. Gallagher and Bishop each scored 17 points and the team improved its record to 5-2 on the year and 4-1 in the GSC.

Southern securely established themselves in second place in the Gulf States Conference with a 43-39 home victory over Centenary on January 14.  The victory was the Southerners’ fifth against one loss in GSC play, placing them right behind league leader Northwestern State, but on January 20 in Hammond, Louisiana the Southerners were stunned by Southeastern Louisiana 78-43. After falling behind 8-1 in the early moments of the game, Southern chipped away at the lead and closed to within 18-15 midway through the first half, but that was as close as they would get as the Lions connected on nearly 60-percent of their shots in the game.

With a 66-51 non-conference road win at Troy State, Floyd’s team captured its seventh win in 10 starts as lanky Hindu Reynolds dominated the game by controlling the backboards on both ends and inspiring the Southerners throughout the game by turning in his best game of the season. Carpenter led the way for Southern with 16 points, while freshman Billy Allgood finished with 14 points. A few days later they traveled to Pensacola NAS to win 59-39 to improve to 8-3.

Triggered by brilliant offense play from Bishop and superlative defensive work from Kenny Curtiss, Mississippi Southern came from behind and defeated the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs 59-51 at the Sports Arena on January 26. Bishop scored 19 of his 27 points in the second half and Curtiss limited Tech’s high scoring center Red Latham to two free throws in the last ten minutes after he had scored 16 points before that. Carpenter played just a little over half the game, suffering a hard jolt when he was knocked to the floor in the opening minutes of the second half. He scored 14 points with most of his basket coming off difficult lay-ups.

On February 4 at the Sports Arena, the Southerners took a big step towards a possible Gulf States Conference championship when they upset Northwestern State 47-40. The victory was first win for Southern over Northwestern since the 1933-34 season. The Demons, who came in unbeaten in conference play, had no answer for the Southern defense, and could never get their offense clicking. The Demons fell to 7-1 in the GSC, placing the Southerners just one half game out of first place.

The Southerners then embarked on a 1,000-mile five game road trip that started with GSC victory number eight in New Orleans defeating Loyola 55-46 on February 7. The victory could have been even more one-sided than it was had the Southerners not shot around 25-percent in the first half. Floyd commented to the news media after the game,

“I’m glad we got this one out of our system tonight, the going will be tougher on up the road.”

Southern lost a tough 62-54 overtime game at Southwestern Louisiana the following night. Leading by five points with 70 seconds remaining in the game the Southerners got what Floyd called “freshmanitis” and couldn’t stall and run out the clock. Regulation time ended with the score 50-50 after Clyde Catha of SLI sank a free throw and a field goal in the last 30 seconds. His field goal came immediately after another SLI shot had hit the rim and bounced out of the court without a hand being laid on the ball. But the referee awarded the ball to the Bulldogs. In the overtime period Roy Young, who had scored just one point in regulation play scored six to give SLI the win. Southern was without three regulars when the rough game finally came to an end. Reynolds fouled out after eight minutes of the second half, Allgood after one minute of the overtime and Gallagher after two minutes of the overtime. The lead changed hands 14 times and the score was tied on seven occasions during the game. Bishop and Gallagher scored 19 and 15 points, respectively for Southern, which dropped to 8-3 in the GSC.

Playing their third game in as many days, all on the road, Southern defeated Louisiana College 54-46, while a fourth road game in four days had the Southerners facing Northwestern State and Southern picked up their second straight triumph over the Demons.

Substitute center Jack Hill dropped in a field goal with a minute and a half left to put the game on ice for the Southerners. Allgood then added a free throw with forty seconds to up the lead to one and from there Southerners froze the ball and won 57-54.

“We played our best game of the year,” Floyd said afterwards. “We played their type of game for the first 15 minutes holding our own. Then we switched to a stalling or possession game and fared a little better.”

Despite the loss Northwestern remained in first in the GSC.

Southern finished its five game in five days road trip with a 52-47 win over Delta State in Cleveland, Mississippi. The Southerners accomplished the feat in spite of the fact that two starters and two key substitutes fouled out. Once again it was Bishop who led the Southerners by scoring 12 points in the first half and another 13 points in the second half, for a 25-point night. Carpenter was hampered on the trip with a reoccurrence of his old knee injury. Floyd said that “If the knee fails to respond to treatment he will be replaced in the starting lineup by Hill,” for the next game against Loyola.

Southern played poorly on February 14 at home against Loyola, but well enough to win 47-41, and found themselves in first place in the Gulf States Conference with a league mark of 11-3. The Southern win over Loyola, coupled with a 62-54 loss by Northwestern State to Centenary had lifted Southern to the top of the standings.

After beating Delta State the week before Southern played them at the Sports Arena on February 16 and lost by a score of 72-47. Despite the non-conference loss the Southerners got some good news when Southwestern Louisiana defeated Northwestern State 61-57. The Northwestern State loss opened the way for the Southerners to win the Gulf States Conference championship. Southern could take the championship with road wins at Louisiana Tech and Centenary in their final two conference games of the season.

But the following night at Ruston, Louisiana, the Bulldogs whipped the Southerners 64-58 in overtime. During the course of the game five Southerners, Gallagher, Hill, Curtiss, Reynolds and Wyatt Tullos fouled out and ten seconds before the end of the first half Bishop, the team’s leading scorer was ejected from the game as the referee thought he and Jerry Lovett, Tech forward were swapping punches on the floor. Lovett was also tossed out of the game.  

Jack Moore, MSC publicity director in explaining the incident later said,” Bishop was driving for a crib shot when the accident occurred. Tom was intentionally fouled by one player, being knocked into Lovett. We thought Lovett and Tom were just attempting to keep or regain their balance but the referee thought they were engaging in fisticuffs.”

The Southerners argued the point and were hit with a technical foul. Tech converted the free throw and led 36-35 at halftime. With Hill pacing the attack the Southerners played inspired ball in the second half even with Bishop and Reynolds on the bench. They entered the two-minute mark with a six-point lead after Curtiss and Gallagher had joined Reynolds and Bishop on the bench. In that last two minutes Southern didn’t score and Tech scored the six points they needed to tie the game at 57-57 and send it into overtime.  Hill and Tullos fouled out in the overtime and Tech outscored Southern 7-1 to win the game.

The Southerners now had to win at Centenary in order to assure themselves of at least a tie for the conference crown. A victory over Centenary would eliminate them from the title race leaving only Southern and Northwestern State in the running. Northwestern State still had a home game with Southeastern Louisiana, a road game at Louisiana Tech and then home games with Louisiana College and Centenary. The Demons had to win all four games if Southern beat Centenary.

But the following night on February 18 Southern clinched the Gulf States Conference title when they took a hard earned 60-57 decision from Centenary, while Southeastern Louisiana polished off Northwestern State 49-44 at Natchitoches. Southern had finished league play 12-4 and Centenary and Northwestern State each had five conference losses.

Centenary led Southern 27-26 at halftime and in the opening minutes of the second half pulled ahead 35-28 and it required a determined surge by the Southerners to overcome the deficit. Bishop, who would go on to be named to the NAIB Little All-American and all-GSC teams, paced the Southerners with 20 points, while Gallagher scored 18 points. Reynolds and Allgood dominated the backboards and playing with an injured knee Carpenter found the range in the second half for 10 points. Southern was now 16-6 overall.

The Southerners captured the GSC title finishing 12-4 in league play, four games ahead of Southeastern Louisiana and Northwestern State which tied for second.

The Southerners would finish the regular season with a pair of non-conference games.  On February 20 at the Sports Arena they defeated Troy State for the second time, 64-57 and then they were required to play a specially mandated game on March 2 against Delta State in Jackson.  The game would serve as an unofficial state championship game. The state legislature requested this game and Southern’s 50-39 victory entitled them to the unofficial title.

Mississippi Southern qualified for the post-season for the first time with their conference championship and the National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball (NAIB) District 19 playoffs would be held at the MSC Sports Arena. The opening round games on March 6 matched Southern against Spring Hill and Delta State meeting East Tennessee State. Delta State defeated East Tennessee State 55-47 to advance to the district finals, while the Southerners got 17 points from Bishop, 15 from Gallagher and 13 from Carpenter to defeat Spring Hill 56-44.

The following night in the championship game Delta State earned their fifth straight district title and a fifth straight trip to the NAIB National tournament in Kansas City by defeating Southern 55-50. The game was tied at 44-44 with 4:50 left in the contest, but Delta State scored six unanswered points over the next two minutes and held on for the win.

The loss brought to an end an exciting season for the Southerners and their 19-7 record coupled with their championship of the Gulf States Conference after being picked to finish last got the Lee Floyd era off to a great start.

Bishop would lead the team in scoring with a 16.2 average, with Gallagher finishing second in scoring at 10.8.

As the post-war era of basketball came to an end at Mississippi Southern with the conclusion of the 1949-1950 season, the growth of the program had been unbelievable. Growing from a program in the years prior to World War II whose roster was filled with mainly football players and was a sport that served mainly as a way to keep the football players in shape for spring practice to one now with scholarships and a progressive coach eager to led the school’s program into the national limelight. The future was indeed bright for Mississippi Southern basketball and the next decade would continue to provide some of the most exciting and record-breaking moments in school history.

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