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Perhaps the greatest athletic achievement in school history, the 1982 NAIA Men's Basketball Championship was not won on the Hodge Center floor, but in one of the most historic arenas in collegiate athletics, Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Mo.
The Rifles were, for the first five years of their competition in the NAIA, an underdog, winning just 25 games before Bill Hinson delivered an 18-13 record in 1979-80. He stepped down as coach at the end of the year, though, and the Rifles hired the former Middleton High School coach away from the University of the South, Jerry Waters. In Waters' first year in 1980-81, even with the loss of two key players from Hinson's squad, the Rifles won the District Six title for the first time in school history and Waters led the team to the second round of the National Tournament in Kansas City.
In 1981-82, the Rifles were predicted to win District Six again in the preseason coaches' poll, and it drew the worry, if not ire, of Coach Waters.
"This ranking obviously means something good, that people think highly of us," he said. "But I've been in the situation before where I was trying to stay No. 1. You can't sneak up on anybody. Every time you win, you're supposed to. Every time you lose, you got upset."
It didn't make matters any better knowing that in the five years of the District Six poll, no team picked No. 1 ever won the championship. The Rifles, however, made it a mission to be the first. And for the most part, they had to do it away from the Hodge Center.
When the schedule was drawn up by Waters, he found a little problem. After winning District Six, no one really wanted to play him in Spartanburg. So the Rifles hit the road, again and again, and they won quite a bit.
"I had dreaded playing that many away games so early in the season," Waters said.
From Nov. 23 to Dec. 10, the Rifles played six games on the road, winning five, their only loss coming by two points.
By the time, USCS returned home, it had proven it was one of the top teams in the district, beating the College of Charleston, 67-55, at the Hodge, the second of 12 games, and wins, on the tartan floor.
Although the College of Charleston went on to secure the No. 1 seed in the District Six Tournament, USCS, needing to win to advance to the National Tournament for the second year in a row, turned away Lander and Coastal Carolina at the Hodge Center before travelling to the College of Charleston for the District Six Championship.
USCS barely survived, in fact needing a miracle, as point guard James Holland tipped a Charleston pass and tossed it to Wendall Gibson, who dunked home the title with 14 seconds remaining. Labeled the "Immaculate Interception," by the Spartanburg Herald-Journal, the steal gave USCS a 54-52 win and their second straight District Six title.
"This has to be the biggest win since I've been coaching," Waters said after the game, "but with 30 seconds left, it didn't look like we were going to get it."
So the Rifles advanced to the NAIA National Tournament, which may be the most grueling basketball tournament in the world. The Rifles, who started the tournament on March 9, had to win five games in as many nights to win the national title, in the same manner that the championship is still held today.
With the help of two All-Americans in Mike Gibson and Wendall, no relation, the Rifles won their first three games by an average of 11.7 points before downing Hampton, 64-58, in the semifinals, setting up a showdown in the finals against unbeaten BIOLA, which entered the game, 39-0.
What the Rifles did in that last game was methodical. Their defense dismantled the Eagles, and after BIOLA took a 28-27 lead with 9:40 to go, the Rifles closed the game on a 24-10 run to take the title, 51-38.
"It may hit me tomorrow," Waters said the night of the title. "I thank the Lord for giving me the opportunity to coach a team like this."
The Rifles returned to Spartanburg that next day, March 14, 1982, with the James Naismith NAIA National Championship Trophy in hand, entering the Hodge Center at 6 p.m. that night. Champions.