FORT MYERS, Fla. — The Mississippi State offense may be a work in progress, but there’s nothing wrong with the Bulldogs’ defense.
Though the Bulldogs were shooting just 25 percent from the ground, the Bulldogs (6-0) held Utah (4-2) for a 52-49 win in the Fort Myers Tipoff Beach Division championship game at the Suncoast Credit Union Arena on the Florida campus back Southwestern State College.
“People text me and say it was an ugly win and I’m like, ‘You bet on it.’ And I love it,” said Mississippi State coach Chris Jans. “You might not always like it, but that’s how you gotta win college basketball games sometimes. It may not be pretty, but you have to take it when you can get it.”
The offensive numbers were ugly. The Bulldogs were 17 of 67 from the field and 9 of 38 from 3-point range. They had zero bank points, were passed by a smaller Utah team, and had just 14 points in the paint. But they are unbeaten in six games and that is the most important statistic for Jans.
“The best thing is that we won,” said Jans, who added that his team will have a defense-first mentality all season. “We will build this team with this approach.
“Certainly you want to play better on offense, but sometimes offense has problems and you can count on (defense) to get you through a rough patch and find a way to win.
“If I had been told at the start of the season that we were 6-0, I would have taken it no matter what it looked like or how big the lead was.”
As they did Monday against Marquette, the Bulldogs gave up the first points of the game — a layup by Utes forward Ben Carlson who finished with a team-high 10 points. State then reticulated eight points in a row, with senior DJ Jeffries accounting for six of them. Things stalled from there, but the Bulldogs still led 25-21 at halftime.
Eric Reed extended the state’s lead to 28-21 with a three-pointer to open the second half, but Utah (4-2) then went on a 9-0 run for their first lead since going 2-0 take over. After Reed’s opening 3, State went 7:18 without a field goal and Reed didn’t score another goal. After scoring 15 points in Monday’s win over Marquette, the veteran guard finished Wednesday’s win with just three points on 1-of-11 shooting.
After a Davis 3 that gave State a short-lived lead, Utah responded with a pair of Treys from Lazar Stefanovic and Gabe Madsen to put Utah 40-35 ahead with 11-13 left. The state’s defense stiffened and Utah, a 68-64 winner over Georgia Tech in the semifinals of the tournament, never managed to break away.
“Basketball is a fun game,” said Utah coach Craig Smith. “Defense Travel. It can be frustrating. Shooting is contagious, good shooting and fighting for shooting. It’s a fine line.”
Jans echoed Smith’s words, knowing that Utah’s game plan would be to “dare” the state to shoot from the perimeter and “grab” the paint around the 6-11 Tolu Smith. Senior guard Dashawn Davis was up to the task. Davis scored 15 of his 18 points in the second half – all from within 3-point range.
“I’ve been telling my staff that someone needs to do some 3s,” Jans said, “and luckily Dashown was able to knock them down.”
Bulldogs forward Tolu Smith had 16 points and 16 rebounds ahead of him and was named tournament MVP, though he humbly stated that Davis was the hero State needed on Wednesday.
“He’s the MVP of the thing. I don’t care what anyone says,” Smith said. “I’m proud of him and the recordings he made. I kept telling him, ‘You’re in the rhythm, shoot it, shoot it, shoot it.’
“He kept making them, and we needed them.”
Davis and Smith were named to the All-Tournament Team along with Ja’ von Franklin of Georgia Tech, Kam Jones of Marquette and Marco Anthony of Utah.
It was only the second meeting ever between the two schools, with the Bulldogs defeating Utah in the second round of the 1995 NCAA tournament.
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