Editor’s note: “Remember When?” is a series by The Register-Herald highlighting the area’s most memorable performances, whether it be a game, season or individual player performance.
Sometimes a game lives up to its billing.
On March 17, 1994, that was the case.
In the midst of an undefeated season, Woodrow Wilson’s basketball team, already a dynasty with three championships over the previous four years, was looking to add its fourth title in five years while posting only the second undefeated season in school program history.
Ahead of the Flying Eagles, however, was arguably their toughest task, DuPont.
“We had beat DuPont earlier that year in a tournament here in Beckley,” said Dave Barksdale, Woodrow Wilson head coach at the time. “It was the same as the state tournament game. Overflow crowd, it was packed. They were undefeated when they came to us and we were undefeated, too. We beat them.”
Approximately 3,000 people showed up to the Beckley-Raleigh County Convention Center on Dec. 29, 1993 for the WJLS Holiday Classic matchup between the two Class AAA powers. It turned out to be a one-sided affair.
Woodrow jumped out to a 24-17 first quarter lead, pulling away late in a 93-78 win. Future NFL Hall of Famer Randy Moss led the Panthers with 28 points, but his star counterpart, future NBA player Jason Williams, was held to 5-of-17 shooting by the Woodrow defense.
Despite the setback, both teams cruised through the rest of the regular season, combining for a 45-2 record record entering the state tournament. At the time the state tournament region pairings were decided years before each season instead of the current seeding format in which coaches vote after sectionals. As a result, the two teams regarded as the best in the state were, barring an upset, predetermined to meet in the quarterfinals of the state tournament.
And they did, in what was regarded as one of the most anticipated matchups in tournament history.
“We were eating our breakfast at Shoney’s and this was before 9 a.m. because we played around noon,” Barksdale said. “We were in there and it was crowded as heck. Somebody walked through the door and yelled loudly ‘If you don’t have a ticket to DuPont/Beckley, forget it! It’s sold out.’ I had chills running through me. To think a day game is sold out at nine in the morning for people wanting to come and see that thing.”
The game set a morning session attendance record, drawing a crowd of 12,850 and the six dollars spent on the price of admission was worth it.
“It was sold out,” Woodrow guard Gene Nabors said. “There were 12 guys waiting to get tickets from coach Barksdale when we got to the coliseum that day. It was probably the state championship game of that year. We didn’t have the seedings, so you already knew what region winner you’d play years before the game even happened.”
Moss opened the game with a resounding two-handed slam, answered by Nabors, who pulled up from just inside the half-court line, launching a deep 3-pointer.
“I just felt it,” Nabors said. “I was maybe two steps inside half court and put it up. It bounced out, but it looked good and I felt it going forward.”
Nabors' confidence was rewarded as he went six-of-eight from beyond the arc in the first half.
Despite Nabors’ best efforts, the opening stanza would belong to DuPont. The Panthers led by as many as 10 points throughout the course of the first half, with Nabors’ six treys along with Anthony Scruggs’ 15 first-quarter points, helping carry the Flying Eagles.
Though all eyes were on the stars — Jason Williams, Gene Nabors and eventual co-Players of the Year Anthony Scruggs and Randy Moss, it was the role players who made the difference. One of them, Bobbie Howard, better known for his football abilities, scored seven points in the final minute of the first half for DuPont.
“I cost us the game against DuPont down there,” Barksdale said. “We had played the same way ever since I got to Beckley. We didn’t have tricks or anything, we just played straight up defense. I had this on a blackboard in ‘94 and it stayed there until I left. I had drawn up and showed our coaches the way I thought we ought to play. We were going to double team (Randy) Moss every time he got the ball. We were going to leave (Billy) Gilmore a little open out front and (Bobbie) Howard, we were going to slouch off him to help on Moss. I had it all on the board.
“Gilmore and Howard had a career first half. I shouldn’t have done it. We beat them before playing the way we always had. I left that on the blackboard so I wouldn’t try to get tricky anymore. I cost us that game. I just thought Howard and Gilmore couldn’t beat us out there and (Jason) Williams didn’t have a turnover the entire game. He usually threw it up in the bleachers somewhere trying to be so fancy. He had zero turnovers.”
Behind the strong play of Nabors and Scruggs, the Flying Eagles trimmed the deficit to two points before the half.
The rest of the way the two teams went back and forth, with DuPont taking an 83-81 lead with under 10 seconds to play. At that point Beckley put the ball in Nabors’ hands.
“I was the point guard, so I wanted to make a play,” Nabors said. “That was my job and I was feeling it all night.”
Nabors, at the top of the key, stepped up to take a shot, drawing the DuPont defense to him. On the way up he noticed a wide open Shawn Mickey under the basket and fired a bullet to him. The ball went through Mickey’s hands, out of bounds with 6.2 seconds left.
“I went up, I thought I had a good shot,” Nabors said. “I had a couple guys there to rebound and I see Shawn wide open and has a better shot than I do. I wanted to get the higher percentage look. I didn’t think he was out of bounds then. It just didn’t fall our way that day. We had to foul right after that and that was the game.”
Williams knocked down two free throws for DuPont and Nabors' last second triple fell short, handing the Panthers an 85-81 win, ending Woodrow’s season at 23-1. Nabors finished the game with 28 points while Scruggs and Moss tied for the game-high, scoring 33 points each. Williams, known for his flashy passing that often led to turnovers, scored 17 points while dishing out 11 assists without a single turnover.
After the game the Woodrow players left the court without shaking hands and Barksdale declined to speak with the media.
“They didn’t have the press conferences back then,” Barskdale said. “Thank goodness for that. I always told them to go talk to the winners. They beat us, go find out why they won. I just couldn’t do it. Naturally it was tough. We were all just down.”
“We kind of didn’t even think about it being our last game,” Nabors said. “We had just been winning so we were ready for the next one after our first loss, but there wasn’t a next one. When it finally set in, after the game I went over to (DuPont’s) locker room and I shook the hands of all their players and their coach. It was a great game.
“I think playing in games like that prepared me for college. When I went to LSU for college, we played in packed venues like that. I remember playing against Ron Mercer and Jared Prickett in Rupp Arena. Playing against Randy and Jason in that atmosphere really helped me when I got to that point.”
DuPont advanced to the Class AAA championship game two days later against Martinsburg, a heavy underdog. Despite being favored, the Panthers fell 79-73 to the Bulldogs.
“It wasn’t the result we wanted, but being apart of that was fun,” Barksdale said. “The kids played hard and that’s all we could ask for. After the game, on our way home Donnie Adkins, one of our players at that time, looked at me and said ‘Coach, I never want to feel like this again.’ That’s when you know you have something special. When it means that much to the kids too.”
“I’ve played in Arkansas, Rupp Arena, and all sorts of other places,” Nabors said. “We didn’t win, but that game was something special. The atmosphere was crazy and the competition was great. That’s definitely one of the best games I’ve ever played in.”
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