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Today in MSU History: McCarthy Returns The Wreath

February 12, 1962- After a big rivalry win on the road in Lexington, Mississippi State's coach Babe McCarthy cut down the nets and hung a funeral wreath on the basketball goal.

To understand the significance of this moment, you must first understand the history between Mississippi State's Babe McCarthy and Kentucky's Adolph Rupp.

By the time McCarthy was hired, Rupp had been at Kentucky for 25 years and had won 18 SEC titles. He was already a legend and had seen plenty of coaches come and go during his tenure, including 4 at Mississippi State.

Babe was a complete unknown in 1955, taking over a dismal Mississippi State team who had not finished with a winning SEC record since WWII. Even Dudy Noble, who hired McCarthy, said something to the affect of, "we play like a junior high team, so I thought we needed a junior high coach."

But McCarthy could recruit, and he quickly showed promise. In his second year, 1957, State finished 17-8 and 9-5 in the SEC. Along the way, they upset #3 Kentucky in Starkville, 89-81, in a game where sophomore Bailey Howell scored 37 points and pulled down 22 rebounds. Afterward, McCarthy was in shock. "This was almost too much for a country boy," he said after the game.

In 1958, Bailey Howell was making a name for himself as State finished another great season with a 20-5 record. But Babe's team struggled away from Starkville, as all five losses came on the road, including a 62-72 defeat at Kentucky.

It all came together in 1959. McCarthy's awe had turned to confidence, and he carried himself with a brazen swagger. In the final home game of the season, Bailey Howell racked up 27 points and 17 rebounds before fouling out, and McCarthy's Maroons got the best of Rupp's top-ranked Wildcats, 66-58. After the game, Babe boasted, "We can beat anybody in the country on our home court." The Maroons finished the season 24-1 and SEC Champions.

The 1960 season was a rebuilding year as Babe anxiously awaited to receive the fruits of State's unbeaten freshman team - Red Stroud, Leland Mitchell, Joe Dan Gold, and Bobby Shows - who were not allowed to participate with the varsity squad. State finished with a losing record and dropped a 59-90 decision to Kentucky in Lexington.

The sophomore studs led Mississippi State to a 16-3 start to the 1961 season, including an 8-0 start in the SEC. Rupp was clearly irrated at McCarthy's arrogance and the success of Mississippi State, who seemed to have more than just a flash-in-the-pan program based solely off of Bailey Howell. Rupp reached for insults and the day before the game, stated, "Hell, we could do well in the conference if we warmed up against a bunch of teacher's colleges. We can't go around playing a bunch of patsies like Mississippi State does."

No love was lost on the Mississippi State side, either. After warmups, three students placed a sack containing a dead skunk under Rupp's seat. After smelling the foul stench and seeing the sack, Rupp opened it up and threw the bag onto the court, raising his hands and walking away.

Kentucky defeated State 68-62 that evening, and Rupp nailed a black wreath with the words REST IN PEACE on the locker room door.

Despite the loss, State went on to win the SEC with an 11-3 conference record. McCarthy kept the wreath.

State's 1962 team may have been McCarthy's best, and it had a chance to prove its worth on February 12 at Kentucky. The Maroons entered the 1962 matchup with an 18-1 record and ranked 8th in the nation, while the 2nd-ranked Wildcats were on a 16-game winning streak.

It was a rainy afternoon, and manager Jimmy Wise hit the wreath under his raincoat as he entered Memorial Gymnasium. Inside, he placed it in a duffle bag under the bench, where it lay throughout the game.

Mississippi State played McCarthy's brand of stall-ball, the Domino-5 offense, and held a 28-22 lead at half. In the locker room, Babe told the team to only take free throws and layups. "We're going to make them come to us," he said.

Kentucky's strategy was predicated on fast-breaks and high scoring games, and struggled when McCarthy effectively executed his ball-control offense. The stall annoyed Rupp, further leading to his discontent with McCarthy and Mississippi State.

But the strategy worked as State consistently held a slim lead throughout the second half. Red Stroud's two free throws with 34 seconds left put the Maroons up by five, and State won 49-44.

After the final horn, the players lifted McCarthy on their shoulders as he placed the wreath on Kentucky's goal and cut down the nets. A bold move on the road in such a basketball-crazed arena...

It was State's first win in Lexington since 1924, and gave the Maroons the inside track to the SEC Title, which they eventually won with a sparkling 13-1 conference record.

This was seemingly the climax of the Bulldog/Wildcat fued of the late 1950's and early 60's. A very public and mutual aversion that included public insults, a wreath, and even a skunk.

Kentucky also finished the 1962 season with a 13-1 record, their only loss coming at the hands of McCarthy's Maroons. State beat Kentucky again in 1963, before falling to the Wildcats in McCarthy's final two seasons. McCarthy finished his 10-year career with a 4-6 record against Kentucky, including victories while the Wildcats were ranked #1 (1959), #2 (1962), and #3 (1957).