Weeks before Chris Webber’s infamous timeout helped seal the 1992-93 men’s college basketball national championship for North Carolina over Michigan, something happened in the center of the West Regional that rocked office pools across the country.
Georgia Tech, five days removed from a victory over those title-bound Tar Heels in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament final, couldn’t keep up with a team from Baton Rouge that, in five previous tries, had never won a game in the NCAA tournament.
No. 13 seed Southern pulled the 93-78 upset, sending the fourth-seeded Yellow Jackets out of the McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz., with a first-round exit.
“I knew we had made history because I paid attention to past Southern teams,” said former SU guard Aaron Hammond, a freshman backup on the 1992-93 team. “Great players had made it to the tournament and not been able to bring victory back to Baton Rouge. We wanted to do that.”
Twenty years later, Southern returns to the NCAA tournament as an even bigger underdog.
The Jaguars will face No. 1 seed Gonzaga, which finished the regular season ranked atop the national polls, as the No. 16 seed in the West Regional on Thursday afternoon in Salt Lake City. Southern will try to become the first team to win a 1-vs.-16 matchup in NCAA men’s tournament history.
But if the Jaguars need inspiration, they only need look in the hallways of the F.G. Clark Activity Center, where a team portrait, two decades old, recalls an upset that captured the nation’s imagination.
The most celebrated game in the history of Southern basketball was never supposed to happen.
Having entered the 1992-93 season as the Southwestern Athletic Conference favorite, the Jaguars finished four games behind regular-season league champion Jackson State, which featured future NBA star Lindsey Hunter.
The Tigers ripped their way to a 13-1 record in the SWAC’s regular season. All six of their nonconference losses came to teams that would become NCAA tournament-bound.
Because the SWAC tournament final tipped off at the same time the NCAA pairings were unveiled, the Selection Committee was forced to decide the SWAC champion’s position in the 64-team field before the league awarded its title.
When the winner of the Southern-Jackson State matchup was assigned a No. 13 seed in the West Regional, it was obvious the Committee had JSU’s stellar regular season in mind and wanted to reward the Tigers with a favorable seed.
“Southern benefited from the 13 seed because of the expectation of Jackson State getting in,” said Arkansas-Pine Bluff Athletic Director Lonza Hardy Jr., who in 1993 served as the league’s assistant commissioner of media relations.
Southern not only beat JSU in the SWAC final, but rolled to a 101-80 victory that marked their sixth straight win.
The Jaguars entered their sixth NCAA tournament as the nation’s highest-scoring team.
Georgia Tech entered as a 15-point favorite, but the Yellow Jackets had exhausted themselves in the ACC tournament, beating two-time defending national champion Duke by three points, Clemson by eight and UNC by two.
The Jaguars liked the matchup.
“Because we are the underdog, I look for the upset,” Southern forward Torrence Williams told reporters.”That’s a promise.”
The Jaguars made Williams look like Joe Namath, but not in the beginning.
Southern missed its first seven shots from the field. Georgia Tech raced to a 10-point lead 4:28 in.
Then the famous Southern band started playing.
Half-interested fans in the McKale Center liked the sound so much, they began to cheer passionately for a team they hardly knew.
They relished TV timeouts when the Southern band played.
“Every time the other band would play, they’d boo,” said former Advocate sportswriter Scott Gremillion, who covered Southern’s games for the paper. “They wanted the Southern band to play every time.”
Southern cut the deficit to five points at the half, then took control down the stretch. The Jaguars scored 32 of the final 49 points to win going away.
“I didn’t believe it,” said Southern forward Jervaughn Scales, who had 27 points and 18 rebounds. “This has to be a dream.”
The biggest win of Southern coach Ben Jobe’s career came at the expense of a friend.
Jobe had served as an assistant alongside Bobby Cremins at South Carolina in the 1970s, then joined him at Georgia Tech when Cremins got the job there in 1981.
“I feel bad for this team, but I want to congratulate my good friend Ben Jobe,” Cremins said after the loss. “If I was going to lose to anybody, it was great to lose to a person like him. To me, he’s always been the equivalent of a John Thompson, Bobby Knight or Dean Smith, and I’m happy he has this moment in his career. His team was fabulous.”
The upset of Georgia Tech made weekend rock stars of Jobe and his players.
A half-hour after the score was final, Hammond said the Jaguars tried to find some Southern-themed souvenirs in the concourse of the McKale Center.
“By the time we made it up there,” Hammond said, “they were sold out.”
Southern had a chance to reach the Sweet 16 with one more win. An even hotter Cinderella got in the way.
Two days after beating Georgia Tech, the Jaguars faced No. 12 seed George Washington, led by freshman 7-footer Yinka Dare, a future first-round draft pick who had blocked a school-record 79 shots in the regular season.
The Colonels took a quick 10-0 lead and never trailed, advancing to play Webber and Michigan five nights later.
When the Jaguars returned home, more than 300 fans were waiting at the airport to greet them.
Place in history
The same day Southern upset Georgia Tech in the NCAA tournament’s first round, Jackson State pulled a 90-88 shocker of Connecticut in an NIT opener.
Hardy, who’s been associated with the SWAC about 30 years, called it the greatest day of basketball in conference history.
“You could almost see a movie being written about it,” he said.
Alcorn State won three NCAA tournament games in the 1980s. Southern remains the only team from the SWAC to do it since then.
The latest opportunity for the league to make some noise hangs on the fortunes of the same school that wrecked Tech two decades ago.
Once again, Southern enters the fray as an office-pool afterthought.
Hammond said he wouldn’t be surprised, however, if the Jaguars make their eighth NCAA appearance one to remember. He said they’ve got a chance.
“You can’t play the game on paper,” Hammond said. “You never know what’s going to happen on a given day.”