The expectations for the 1963 Mississippi State basketball team must have been out of this world. Our top three scorers were returning from the ‘62 squad that finished 24-1 and won the SEC Title for the 3rd time in 4 years. All-American Red Stroud, All-SEC forward Leland Mitchell, and Joe Dan Gold were back for the Maroons.
But non-conference road losses to Virginia Tech & Houston and an overtime loss to Alabama put State at 10-3 (2-1 SEC), with league-leading, undefeated, 7th-ranked Georgia Tech on its way to Starkville.
Georgia Tech had already beaten Kentucky 86-85 in double overtime, and a win against Mississippi State would put Tech in a commanding lead for the SEC Title.
But Tech struggled in Ooxford two nights before, beating ole miss by just 2 points in overtime. That same night, State posted 5 points in the final 30 seconds in a come-from-behind 58-55 victory over Vanderbilt.
Mississippi State desperately needed a win to stay in SEC Title contention, and the showdown was on a Monday night at the New Gym (now, McCarthy Gym).
Prior to the game, the 5,100 in attendance flooded the diners and eateries in Starkville, forced to eat off-campus, as the cafeteria (just up the hill from the gymnasium) burned the night before the big matchup.
The first half was a back-and-forth affair, with the scored tied seven times and the lead changing hands 9 times. State pulled away at the end of the half and carried a 35-29 lead into halftime.
Red Stroud and Leland Mitchell got hot early in the second half and expanded the margin to 53-36 just six minutes later.
With seven minutes to play, Babe McCarthy switched to a stall offense (no shot clock back then, remember) and ran out the clock as State cruised to an 81-69 victory.
Maroon stars Red Stroud and Leland Mitchell added 30 and 25 points, respectively, with Mitchell contributing 12 rebounds, as well.
The Atlanta Constitution reported:
In its eighth road game, Tech simply ran out of gas and was beaten by a State team as fired up as its campus cafeteria, which was destroyed by flames a few hours earlier.
By the end of the season, State (12-2 SEC) had claimed her fourth SEC Title in five years. But a tight SEC race didn't stop the Maroons from looking ahead. By mid-February, both fans and Babe McCarthy were lobbying school and state officials for acceptance to the integrated NCAA Tournament – well before the SEC Title was secured or the season was finished.
Georgia Tech (10-4 SEC) went on to finish second in the SEC and was ready and eager to participate in the NCAA Tournament, should State decline the invitation for the third time in five years.
Of course, Mississippi State did accept the bid to the NCAA Tournament, losing to eventual national champions (and integrated squad) Loyola, in one of the most celebrated moments in Mississippi State history.
But without the victory over Georgia Tech, both schools would have finished 11-3 in-conference, with Tech holding the head-to-head tiebreaker. There would have been no SEC Title for Mississippi State, no defying the segregationalist state law enforcement, no NCAA Tournament, and no "Game of Change" against Loyola.