FORT MYERS, Fla. – The state of Mississippi has lent further credence to the old sports adage. Defense won another championship.
What has become a recurring theme this season, the Bulldog defense was too hard and stingy for their opponent to overcome as MSU clinched a 52-49 win over Utah at Suncoast Credit Union Arena Wednesday night, to win the Fort Myers Tip-Off Championship. Despite only scoring 25.4 percent himself as a team, State was able to keep the Utes in check to remain undefeated.
“You might not always like it, but that’s how you gotta win college basketball games sometimes,” says head coach Chris Jans said. “It’s not nice. You have to take them when you can get them… We missed 50 shots but the best part was we won.”
For the fourth time this season, MSU kept their opponent under 50 points. State has not conceded more than 55 points in any contest in any of its first six games.
Defensive strength has probably never been as valuable this year as it was on Wednesday. Although the Dawgs couldn’t seem to get a shot to drop, the Utes were challenged just as offensively. Utah made just 17 of its 52 shots from the field to leave the door open to Mississippi State.
“We just stuck with it on defense,” said Guard Dashawn Davis said. “We played hard. We played together. We just kept going.”
MSU led 25-21 at halftime, but despite State’s defensive success, Utah scored enough goals in the second half to put themselves a big chunk ahead of the Bulldogs in the final 20 minutes. The Utes led by as much as five points during that period and held a 40-35 advantage over State playing 11-23.
Things were getting worse for the Dawgs.
“[Utah’s defensive] Game plan was evident from the jump,” said Jans. “We thought they would wrap it up and challenge us to shoot it. They certainly didn’t disappoint… We struggled to get in because they just surrounded us Tolu Smith.”
Jans said he found State had to hit a few 3-pointers to win the game. Luckily, the Dawgs had Davis ready to step up and take the call.
Within nine minutes, Davis hit not one, not two, not three, but four Treys. The Triples turned a five-point MSU deficit into a four-point lead with 2:27 to go.
The Bulldogs held on from there.
Davis finished with a team-high 18 points, with all 18 coming from long range shots. He was 6-for-9 from across the arc. Davis now has 30 points combined in his last two games and has emerged as an offensive hero just when State needed it most.
Davis was named to the Fort Myers Tip-Off All-Tournament Team along with Smith, who was also voted the event’s Most Valuable Player. However, Smith said that if he had a vote, it would have gone to someone other than himself.
“[Davis is] the MVP, I don’t care what anyone says,” Smith said. “I’m proud of him and all the shots he took. I just said to him, ‘If you’re in the rhythm, shoot it, shoot it, shoot it.’ He carried it on. We needed that boost that he brought to the game. That’s how we got the win.”
It’s also worth mentioning for anyone who doesn’t know. Davis did all of this to fight through some pain.
“He’s playing on a pretty limping ankle,” said Jans. “He hasn’t trained since the first game… If you really know him and watch him, he was limping around. It wasn’t nearly as explosive as usual. It didn’t stain. He made some shots obvious. He was really brave. He really stepped up when we needed him. “
While Davis played his big part on Wednesday, Smith was once again able to be incredibly productive despite the attention he received from the Utes. The big man scored the 15th Double-double of his career with a total of 16 points and 16 rebounds.
DJ Jeffries Added 10 for MSU. Only two other Bulldogs performed like this Cameron Matthews scored five and Eric Reed, Jr. scored three.
It might not seem like much, but it was enough. In the end, that’s all that matters.
Sure, there are offensive advances to be found. In the meantime, the Dawgs will continue to be the boldest defensive team they can be.
“We built this team with this mentality and this approach,” said Jans. “It’s the old cliché. Defense usually travels in a bus or plane. That’s what I’ve believed in my whole career. I’ve experienced it so many times in my life. Of course we want to play better offensively and I’ve got to get them better in bring a better position, but if you can count on it [defense] To get you through some rough patches and rough halves and rough games, you can still find a way to win.