Jerry Harkness, 81, Dies; Star of a Historic Integrated Basketball Team

The Loyola-Mississippi State game nearly didn’t happen, and it would not have happened if segregationists, led by Gov. Ross Barnett of Mississippi, had had their way.

Mississippi wanted to play in the tournament — the team had won the Southeastern Conference title — but a state senator persuaded a judge to issue a temporary injunction to keep the team from going to East Lansing.

“The biggest thing at the time is we didn’t know if they were coming,” Harkness told ESPN in 2012.

But Mississippi State’s president, Dean Colvard, concocted a plan to avoid being served with the injunction, according to an ESPN account. He told Babe McCarthy, the team’s coach, to drive to Memphis, while he went to Alabama for a speaking engagement.

An assistant coach then took the freshman players and some reserves to a private plane, where, once they appeared safe from a process server, he summoned the rest of the team. They subsequently boarded a flight from Starkville, Miss., to Nashville, where McCarthy met them. The team, united again, flew to Michigan to face Loyola. By that point, the injunction had been suspended.

The Ramblers rolled on after beating Mississippi State. In the next two rounds, they defeated the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and Duke University.

In the final game, against the University of Cincinnati, the two-time defending champion, Loyola trailed by 15 points midway through the second half but tied the game with six seconds left on a shot by Harkness. The Ramblers won in overtime, 60-58.