Sixteen years ago, history was made on March 8, 2003, as the Prairie View A&M men’s basketball team hoisted a SWAC regular season championship trophy for the first time in 57 years with an emotional win over Alcorn State. Please allow me to take you back on the season’s magic carpet ride.
After a disappointing 10-20 mark during the 2001-02 campaign, a relatively new athletic director at the time in Charles McClelland made a bold move in the spring which raised eyebrows. McClelland relieved longtime head men’s basketball coach Elwood Plummer of his duties and began a nationwide search which would have major implications on the future of Prairie View A&M basketball. While searches at the time were common across the nation, this was a first at Prairie View considering Plummer spent a combined 18 years at Prairie View A&M over two stints as head coach.
Once the decision was made in early March, the rumor mills were hot as you had legendary high school coaches in Houston express interest, tons of college assistants and even a 22-year old whiz-kid youngster at the time who turned out to be a head coach at Memphis and now Georgia Tech in Josh Pastner. Ultimately, the search would end with a Houston spin as former Ohio State standout and University of Houston assistant coach Jerome Francis, Jr. assumed the reigns in April of 2002.
Francis had an outgoing personality which allowed him to easily win over PV nation before the first whistle was blown. Local media loved him and recruiting services quickly took notice as he was present across town spreading the “Go Panthers.” He made a big splash with his initial recruiting class and those close to the program quietly expected big things as the cupboard wasn’t bare with the return of eight lettermen including all-everything guard Greg Burks and 6-11 post-Roderick Riley.
With the first game against his former employer in the University of Houston on Nov 23, 2002, Francis came out smoking and shocked the world with a big 78-75 win over the Cougars. The following week, the Panthers made ESPN’s SportsCenter for their play against No. 8 Oklahoma as they led in the second half at one time as ironically, the Sooners were led by current UH coach Kevin Sampson.
The following weekend, the Panthers played host to Texas A&M (yes, that Texas A&M) in the Baby Dome and once again had the city abuzz following a double-overtime defeat in which fans left knowing the right decision was made. The team hit a bit of a rough spot as they dropped its next five games but they were competitive enough to cause fellow SWAC teams to notice.
SWAC play began on Jan. 4, 2003 in Lorman, Miss, against Dave Whitney and Alcorn State. The new-look Panthers took it right at the defending SWAC Champions with a 37-28 halftime lead and held on for a 77-70 win which saw Malachi Thurston score 28 points. The following Monday, the Panthers upped their record to 2-0 with a hard-fought win over Southern which set up a showdown the local area has been anticipating against Texas Southern. One year earlier, TSU hired high school legendary coach Ronnie Courtney from Willowridge High School and created a buzz with his team’s play on the court.
Both teams entered the contest 2-0 as 5,052 fans crammed into the sold-out Baby Dome (school was not in session yet) to see the Panthers improve to 3-0 behind Greg Burks’ scored 22 points as this became the team’s theme song. One week later, the team improved to 5-0 with wins over Jackson State and Grambling State and there was a buzz across the campus which hadn’t been seen in years.
Unfortunately, the streak came to an end in Itta Bena, Miss. on Jan. 25 as the sharp dressed Lafayette Stribling and the Mississippi Valley State Delta Devils shot the lights out of the gym. The Panthers persevered after the loss and closed out the first half of SWAC play with an 8-1 mark.
Prairie View A&M was basically the city of Houston’s team from that point. The improbable first-half run fueled enthusiasm from Panther fans near and far but a storm was brewing 50-plus miles in Houston’s 3rd Ward.
After the loss to Prairie View in January, Texas Southern rolled through SWAC play undefeated which set up a collision course people talk about to this day.
On Feb. 8, 2003, one of the most exciting contests in SWAC history took place in Houston as TSU and Prairie View battled to a double overtime affair before 10,000 fans at the H & PE Arena. Despite 37 points from Burks, TSU claimed the win behind a 40-point effort from Rakim Hollis. TSU claimed sole possession of first place that evening as a result.
Prairie View split its next two games at Grambling State and Jackson State but once again, fell victim to those pesky Delta Devils of Mississippi Valley as they claimed a 75-72 overtime win. Facing a two-game losing streak for the first time since preseason, the regular season championship was slipping away from the Panthers. However, the team closed out SWAC play on a tear with five straight wins en route to winning its first SWAC Regular Season Championship since back-to-back titles in 1961 and 1962.
Burks was named SWAC Player of the Year after finishing the regular season with 18.5 points per game. Malachi Thurston was the SWAC’s Newcomer of the Year and All-SWAC Second Team Performer along with Roderick Riley.
At the time, there was no automatic bid to the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) for winning the regular season championship as the only incentive was a home contest in the first round of the SWAC Tournament and the top overall seed. The Panthers opened tournament play against Southern and the expectations were high as TV stations had live broadcasts at the Baby Dome and even radio play-by-play announcer Charles Porter secured additional broadcasting coverage in Houston as the game simulated on KCOH 1430 AM in Houston.
Facing SU for the second time in five days, the Panthers fought for their lives as they went back-and-forth with the Jaguars and all-everything guard Victor Tarver. The game wasn’t secure until the final minutes as Brandon Moorer’s 13-point performance gave the team a hard-fought 56-55 win which caused fans to let out a collective sigh of relief after.
Three days later, the team traveled east to Birmingham and Fair Park Arena to face off against Alcorn State once again. For those looking for a happy ending, I’ll leave it right there as you had to be there to see it.
Ryan McGinty is an HBCU athletics media relations consultant and a graduate of Prairie View A&M University.