Celebrating the 30th Anniversary of the NIT Championship team
Written by: John Cox
The outlook was indeed bright for Southern Mississippi's Golden Eagles as the 1986-87 season dawned. In fact the fortunes of the team appeared so bright that several national basketball publications listed the Golden Eagles among the preseason top 20 teams in the country.
M.K. Turk would have plenty of depth and talent to rely on in 1986-87. All five starters would return from the previous year. Back were 6-2 junior Casey Fisher and 6-3 senior Kenny Siler, who would captain the team after spending the previous summer touring Europe as a member of the NIT all-stars, in the backcourt.
Randolph Keys, a 6-8 junior center, 6-6 junior Derrek Hamilton and 6-7 junior John White would return up front.
Other returning lettermen included 6-7 sophomore walk-on D.J. Bowe, 6-7 sophomore Willie Brown, 6-6 sophomore Allen Chapman, 6-6 sophomore Jurado Hinton and 6-1 sophomore Jay Ladner.
Joining the team for the 1986-87 season were 6-0 sophomore Randy Pettus of Waynesboro, Miss., who had sat out the year before after transferring from DePaul, 6-5 sophomore Jimmy Smith, also from Waynesboro, Miss., who had sat out after transferring from Alabama and 6-8 sophomore John Brown from Columbia, Miss., who also had sat out after transferring from Alabama.
"Our goals are quite simple," Turk commented before the start of the season. "We are going to make every effort to prepare our team as well as we possibly can for each contest. As a result of that we are confident that our players will give us the supreme performance on the floor. With our very best effort in each game I am sure we will achieve success."
(Editor's Note: The Golden Eagles finished the regular season with a 17-10 record and then went 1-1 in the Metro Conference Tournament, defeating Virginia Tech 83-66 for its first-ever league tourney win before falling to Louisville 78-71 in the next round which led to the Golden Eagles being picked for the NIT.)
The Golden Eagles would find out the next day that they would be going to the NIT and host in-state rival Ole Miss in the opening round at Green Coliseum. Ed Murphy, Turk's long-time friend and junior college teammate and roommate at Copiah-Lincoln Community College coached the Rebels.
But the Rebels were no match for the Golden Eagles when the two squads met for the first time since 1980 on Fri., March 13, as USM rolled to an easier than expected 93-75 win. The Golden Eagles put the Rebels to sleep early, canning their first eight field goals of the night, and forging an 18-point advantage, 41-23. The Golden Eagles extended their lead in the second half to as many as 36 points, before Turk began to empty his bench. USM shot a sizzling 66.7-percent from the field in the first half and finished the night shooting 56.3-percent.
For the next game, in St. Louis for St. Patrick's Day, the Golden Eagles defeated the Saint Louis Billikens, 83-78, in overtime to advance to the NIT quarterfinals. SLU's Roland Gray sent the game into overtime by sinking both ends of a one-and-one. A 3-point play by Redditt Hudson at the start of overtime gave the Billikens a 77-74 lead, only its second lead of the game. But Randolph Keys took a charge from Jim Roder and made both free throws. Two plays later, Keys took another charge, this time from Anthony Bonner, causing the 6-foot-7 freshman to foul out. Keys made one free throw and SLU made one free throw as well for a 78-77 lead. But John White hit a line drive 3-pointer out of the deep right corner, which bounced high off the rim before dropping through with 1:28 to go to give the Eagles a lead and the victory. Four days later at Vanderbilt, Casey Fisher scored 21 points and handed out seven assists at Memorial Coliseum and the Golden Eagles defeated the Commodores 95-88 to advance to New York and Madison Square Garden for the NIT semifinals.
After shooting 62 percent in the first half and racing to a 54-36 halftime lead, USM seemingly had Vandy on the ropes. But the Commodores had other ideas and sparked by the play of 7-foot center Will Perdue, battled back to tie the game at 60-60. But Fisher responded by hitting a 3-pointer to give USM the lead at 65-64 with 13 minutes remaining and the Eagles never looked back. Perdue led Vandy with 34 points and 14 rebounds, but in addition to Fisher's 21 points, the Eagles got 26 points and eight rebounds from Keys and 21 points from John White.
"I'm looking forward to this. I hear New York is much bigger than Richton (his hometown). It's so big they had to name it twice, New York, New York," said the reserve forward Hinton. Vanderbilt head coach C.M. Newton said, "The best team won today. As a result now they go to New York and we go to class."
Reserves Pettus and Hinton helped USM rally from a 13-point first-half deficit and go on to defeat Nebraska 82-75 in the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden on March 24. The Golden Eagles led 43-42 at halftime, but fell behind by four points in the second half before Pettus and Hinton came off the bench again to lead the Golden Eagles to the win. The sophomore duo combined for 18 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists in 43 minutes, the best production USM has gotten from the two reserves this season.
"We've got bench," said John White, who had 19 points and eight rebounds. "When Jurado came in he gave everybody a big lift with some big rebounds and put backs. Randy did a good job of running the team. They did a tremendous job."
In the championship game two nights later against LaSalle, John White made two free throws with six seconds left in the game, clinching a USM 84-80 win over the Explorers and the championship of the 50th NIT. White sat on the bench for 16 minutes of the second half with four fouls before returning with 15 seconds left. Teammate Derrek Hamilton set up White's late-game heroics when he deflected a Rich Tarr pass and White picked up the loose ball.
"I was in the game when I stepped in and when I got the ball," said White, who had 10 points, five assists and four rebounds. "It was like I had been in the game all night. There was no doubt. I had made up my mind that I was going to make them both. I like to be a money player."
"I told our coaches on the bench 'this is it'," Turk said. "I would have bet my life he would make both foul shots. He's a pressure player. There was no doubt in my mind."
Keys was named the tournament's most valuable player and was joined on the all-tournament team by Hamilton.
Randolph Keys was the team's leading scorer at 16.4 points per game and led the team in rebounding at 7.9 per game. Derrek Hamilton finished second in scoring with 13.5 per game and was second in rebounding at 7.2 per game. Three other players averaged in double figures scoring with Fisher averaging 13.1, John White 13.1 and Kenny Siler 11.3. Fisher's 200 assists set a school record.
Keys was selected to the all-Metro Conference second team, in addition to being named the most valuable player of the NIT and the NIT all-tournament team along with Hamilton. Keys was named to the NIT all-star team and traveled to Europe with the squad.