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By 1989, Jerry Waters, in his eighth season as head coach at USC Spartanburg, was a little more used to being a contender than he was in 1981, when he worried if being picked as a conference favorite was a good thing for his Rifles.
Seven seasons later, he had crafted and developed USCS' system. The Rifles were the Runnin' Rifles, and run they did. From the last home game of the 1988-89 season all the way to February of 1993, the Rifles won 50 straight games, the longest streak in all of Division II at the time, second in the NCAA only to Jerry Tarkenian's UNLV squad.
The streak began, innocently enough, when the Rifles downed Francis Marion in the first round of the District Six Tournament. It continued through an NAIA District Six title run in 1990. The streak, then at 16 games, even made the transition, along with the rest of USC Spartanburg to the NCAA and Division II at the end of that season.
The streak went along for the ride as the Rifles posted perfect home slates in 1990-91 and 1991-92, helping Waters' teams win Peach Belt Conference regular-season titles each year. Along the way, the streak created a home environment that if it wasn't hostile, was at least intimidating.
The Hodge Hecklers became a force in the gymnasium. The Spartanburg Herald Journal's Rick Cooper said, "(USCS') cozy is another team's claustrophobic, especially when the USCS natives are naturally restless and vociferous."
Waters added, "(The Hodge Center) is pretty closed in. There's not a lot of space on the sides. I think it contributes to helping our defense."
Add on to that an offense so effective that it had to add the euphemism `Runnin' to their name. The Rifles led the NAIA in field goal percentage in 1989-90 and Division II in each of the next two years. Ulysses Hackett was the Spartans' high-flying star during those years, earning three second-team All-American honors, from 1990-92, scoring a school-record 2,688 points and shooting 67 percent from the floor for his career. By the time his eligibility ended in 1992, Hackett had won his last 40 games in front of the Hecklers.
Included in those 40 wins was an 84-60 win over Georgia College (now Georgia College & State University) on Feb. 8, 1992 to clinch the Peach Belt regular-season championship on the Hodge Center floor. It was the first regular-season title won by the Rifles on their home floor.
Even without Hackett, the Rifles were predicted to finish first in the Peach Belt at the start of 1993 and though All-Americans were replaced by All-Peach Belt players like Darren McDuffie and Greg Pounds, the Rifles lived up to their expectations. The streak reached 48 games on Jan. 29 when the Rifles beat Lander, 89-77, giving Waters his 300th career victory in his 15th overall year of collegiate coaching.
By Feb. 14, when the Rifles hung on for a 69-65 over USC Aiken for their 50th straight win at the Hodge, the team was once again in first place in the Peach Belt with a 9-3 record and four games left to play.
After the game, Waters said, "All we're trying to do is win a championship. Those streaks build up over two or three years with players from other teams. I don't make light of that. It's a real tribute. But it's not something we emphasize."
Much of the streak, which lasted through parts of five seasons, could be attributed to Waters' himself, who instilled in those Runnin' Rifles teams that even the slightest accomplishments had to be earned. During the streak, it was his booming bark that could be heard throughout the Hodge, telling players to "Turn it up!" when he wanted more intensity.
However, USCS' dreams for its third straight Peach Belt title did end up falling short. Three days after taking the conference lead at the Hodge, it was Francis Marion, the same school with which USCS started the streak, that ended it with a 52-50 win on Feb. 17, 1993. A fast-break layup by Carlton Farr with 52 seconds left finally put an end to the streak, and helped USC Aiken eventually take the Peach Belt title over USCS by two games.
After the game, Waters said, "I think it was an extra bit of pressure for our teams and an extra incentive for teams coming in here. The streak meant an awful lot, but it just put ammunition there."
So the run of streaks and championships ended on that February day in 1993, but it left with it more than a few memories. Maybe more so than the national championship won seven years before, the streak and the three straight championships from 1990-92 cemented Coach Waters' legacy as one of the best coaches in South Carolina basketball.