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Jacksonville State Bringing a Bit of Longhorn Basketball to March Madness

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The longhorns didn’t make the tourney, but an Abe Lemons protégé will be on stage against Louisville. 

NCAA Basketball: Jacksonville State at Maryland Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time in school history, the Jacksonville State Gamecocks are going to the Big Dance. Jacksonville State captured the Ohio Valley Conference tournament Saturday, defeating Tenn.-Martin 66-55, becoming their first squad to qualify for the 2017 NCAA tournament.

Not bad for a team that was 8-13 last year.

First year coach Ray Harper fashioned a 20-14 mark to get the Midwest #15 seed and a Friday meeting with #2 seed Louisville. Harper is the winningest coach you have never heard of.

The 55-year old native Kentuckian has been a head coach for 18 years has won 471 games and four national championships (two NCAA II and two NAIA). He had a streak of 6 straight Division II title game appearances from 1998-2003. He won in 1999 and 2001 coaching for his alma mater, Kentucky Wesleyan, where his #12 jersey has been permanently retired and the floor at Jones Gymnasium is named "Ray Harper Court."

Before all that, Harper was a major player in the most bizarre season in Longhorn basketball history.

The Bremen, Kentucky native was straight out of hollywood casting in the role of point guard for Abe Lemons. The 5-11 Harper filled Lemon’s qualifications for the position to a T. Abe once said that Harper was, “smart, nerveless an outstanding passer and, when he’s hot, can flat bomb the basket from 30 feet. He plays best under pressure.”

Harper was the 1981 Southwest Conference Rookie of the Year at Texas, averaging 10 points and 4 assists per contest. With two legitimate NBA prospects (LaSalle Thompson and Mike Wacker) coming back, Lemons believed Harper was the perfect point guard for his offense.

1981-82 – What Could Have Been

LaSalle Thompson was Abe's first big national recruit. A 6-11 center out of Cincinnati, Thompson set the school rebounding record in three years that wasn't broken for two decades. His single-season mark of 23 double-doubles during the 1980-81 season still stands.

Mike Wacker was a 6-8-sophomore power forward who would rebound with the best while also showing a nice mid-range jumper. Wacker could man up with anyone on defense. He was the perfect compliment down low. Wacker was an enthusiastic leader as the college basketball equivalent of Colt McCoy – a coachs’ son who was the best player and the hardest worker.

Texas ran off 14 straight victories to start the season, winning by an average of 19 points a game. After the ninth contest they broke into the Top 20 – at #19. Then over the next four days Texas played their way into the Top 5.

First was a stop at Houston where the Horns slapped the #10 Coogs95-83.

The Phi Slamma Jamma Coogs. The Drexler, Olajuwon, Young Coogs.

Mike Wacker had 36 points in the win.

Three days later #9 Arkansas visited the Erwin Center and Texas won 87-73. Two more lop-sided wins over TCU and South Carolina and the Horns were 14-0, #5 in the polls.

Texas got to that point by having a superb starting five – and almost no help off the bench. Thompson was a monster underneath. He would play 15 years in the NBA. Wacker, just a sophomore, was one of the first power forwards who at 6-8 was as comfortable taking a jumper or running the floor as posting up. His NBA potential was as bright at Thompson’s. Virdell Howland was a 6-6 slasher at small forward while Denard Holmes, at 6-4, handled big guard duties. All four averaged in double figures, while Harper ran the offense and distributed the basketball.

It all came apart in a barn called the Heart O’Texas Coliseum in Waco.

That next game was at Baylor. Sports Illustrated had a writer and photographer with the team, working on a cover story. Abe Lemons did not travel with the Horns as he was in Oklahoma City for a family funeral.

While Lemons was driving from Dallas to Waco, the season came crashing down. Wacker jumped up for a rebound and destroyed his knee in the process. Untouched, he collapsed to the tartan floor screaming in pain. The doctor later said he suffered ligament and cartlidge damage, as well as cracking the kneecap. In more technical medical terms he said “if Mike had taken a sledgehammer to his knee he could not have done more damage.”

Just outside of Waco, Lemons picked up the radio broadcast of the contest, heard about Wacker's knee injury - and kept on driving back to Austin. Baylor won 69-59.

Without Wacker the delicate balance among the 6-man rotation was broken. Suddenly players like Holmes and Howland had to play out of their comfort zone. The team collapsed, finishing 2-11 the rest of the way.

The cold, hard numbers hardly tell the story of the pain and anguish of that season. It reached the low point 10 days after the Baylor game when Texas went to Arkansas. The Hogs were loaded with NBA talent with Scott Hastings, Alvin Robertson and Darrell Walker. It was an ugly atmosphere from the start. The coaches (Eddie Sutton and Abe) didn't like each other and the fans hated Texas.

Somehow Texas stayed close and lost in overtime. But it was towards the end when things got out of control. Harper and Hastings got into a little shoving match, and then suddenly Darrell Walker sucker punched Harper from behind.

All hell broke loose.

The fight expanded to include both teams, though it was mostly a shoving match. Once that calmed down, the fans were still in frenzy.

The Texas team had to leave the court directly through the student sections and one of the football players reached over the railing and popped Harper as he walked by. That started another mini-brawl. Abe demanded that Walker be suspended by the SWC for the punch but the league did nothing.

Lemons lost his enthusiasm for the season and the team quickly took their cue from their coach. After the season Abe was fired and LaSalle Thompson turned pro.

Mike Wacker spent two and half years in rehab just to play one more season at Texas.

That is not a misprint.

He was he team MVP in 1984-85 and All-SWC. He then went into coaching, spent 26 years at Converse Judson HS and is currently the head coach at Texas Lutheran, where his late father Jim captured two NAIA national championships. Mike was inducted into the Longhorn Hall of Honor in 1999.

LaSalle Thompson played in the NBA for 15 years, and was inducted into the Longhorn Hall of Honor in 1998.

Ray Harper transferred back home to Kentucky Wesleyan where he was the Division II School's first All-American. As coach at his alma mater, Harper compiled a 242–45 win-loss record. He was named the Division II National Coach of the Year seven times and won two national titles there in 1999 and 2001.

Ray never forgot the lessons of his two years with Abe at Texas, and he left Kentucky Wesleyan to take over Abe’s old haunt – Oklahoma City University. Harper spent three seasons at OCU, getting to the NAIA national championship game each season – winning twice with the lone loss coming on a game-ending three pointer.

Harper left OCU to become an assistant at Western Kentucky – to be one step closer to a D-1 job. . After serving two years as an assistant at WKU, he took over as the Hilltoppers' interim coach in January of the 2011-12 season and was named the full-time head coach in the off-season.

Harper led the WKU to the NCAA Tournament in his first two seasons and finished 89-64 overall. He resigned last year after five seasons at Western Kentucky after 18-16 record marred by the suspension of three players for an off-the-court matter. In less than a month, he was hired by Jacksonville State.

With 34 years and 599 wins, Abe Lemons retired from coaching. He remarked that he kept a list of every player who played from him – with their addresses and what they were doing presently. “That to me,” said Abe, “is what coaching is all about.

Six of those years were spent at Texas, and his commitment to his players was reciprocated. Abe passed away in 2002 of complications from Parkinson’s disease. Over 1,000 mourners showed up for the service. Johnny Moore, star guard on Abe’s NIT championship team put it best when he said, "I want everyone to know Abe got his 600th victory. He won the game of life," said Moore.

Joining Moore as pallbearers were Harper, Wacker as well as other former Longhorns John Danks and Tyrone Branyon.

I’ll tune in Friday if for nothing else to watch Harper on the sidelines and see a little of Abe in action.