USM to honor ’87 NIT title team

VICKSBURG – (AP) In 1987, the Cold War was still festering, music was on cassette and cellphones were huge and for only the very rich.

And Southern Miss basketball was king of the National Invitational Tournament.

That year, the Golden Eagles won five games, four of them on the road, to take the NIT championship at the Madison Square Garden for the school’s lone national title in basketball.

On Jan. 19, the school will honor the team in its celebration of 100 years of champions at halftime of the basketball game against Alabama-Birmingham.

Utica native and Vicksburg resident Casey Fisher was a hot-shooting guard, playing for legendary coach M.K Turk. And he doubled as the team’s barber. So when teammate John White suggested that he wanted Fisher to clip a NY into the side of his hair, Fisher wanted it as well. It’s a memory that he still treasures.

“I had a bit more hair than I do now,” Fisher said with a laugh. “The older we get, the bigger the deal it becomes, winning those five games. It was amazing, people all over the world, watching us play basketball.”

The NIT is viewed as a consolation prize for those left out of the NCAA Tournament.

The high-flying Golden Eagles set a school record that season for points, averaging 97.6 points per game. But they were peeved after finishing tied for third in the defunct Metro Conference and being left out of the Big Dance. In the conference tournament, they beat Virginia Tech before falling to defending NCAA champion Louisville 78-71.

“We definitely had a chip on our shoulders and we felt shunned by the NCAA,” Fisher said. “We felt our conference was just as tough any other and we should’ve played in the (NCAA) Tournament.”

Instead of letting their season drown in a pool of bitterness, the Golden Eagles refocused their energies.

After returning home to Hattiesburg, their opener in the NIT was against in-state rival Ole Miss. Fisher had squared off against Ole Miss star Rod Barnes and their battles in high school became legendary. It was a challenge Fisher and the Golden Eagles relished.

“I was really looking forward to playing against Rod, because at the time, he was All-SEC,” Fisher said. “Anytime you go against an SEC team, it’s going to be big. But being an in-state rival, it was for bragging rights.”

The game at Reed Green Coliseum sold out in 13 hours and the Golden Eagles were up to the task, crushing the Rebels 93-75.

Then the Golden Eagles got on the bus and didn’t return until they had secured the NIT trophy by beating St. Louis, Vanderbilt, Nebraska and LaSalle. What’s even more amazing is that the Golden Eagles won all four by five points or less in hostile environments.

“We did it the hard way,” Fisher said. “It was hard to put that five-game run together, knowing that you lose one game and you’re out. We were tight, just like brothers, and that helped us pull it off.”

Fisher finished his four-year career at Southern Miss as the school’s career assist leader with 641 and is second in steals with 183.

All that paled in comparison to bringing the school its first and only basketball title.

While Southern Miss spent the next few years after Turk left in 1996 without any sustained success, Fisher feels that Larry Eustachy, who left after last year’s NCAA Tournament run for Colorado State, and present coach Donnie Tyndall have put the program back on track.

“But after Turk’s run, we lost that momentum,” Fisher said. “Now, we’ve got the right coach and he’s a proven winner. We’re on the right road now.”

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