FORT MYERS, Fla. — It sure wasn’t pretty, but the Mississippi State men’s basketball team remains undefeated.
The Bulldogs held off Marquette for a 58-55 victory Monday night in front of a very pro-Marquette crowd in the Fort Myers Tipoff semifinals inside Suncoast Credit Union Arena. It was a defensive battle for most of the game as both offenses struggled mightily.
“Our offense is a work in progress,” said Mississippi State coach Chris Jans, who is in his first season in Starkville after leading New Mexico State to four WAC championships in five seasons. “We knew this was going to be a battle.”
After giving up the game’s first points, a 3-pointer by Marquette guard Kam Jones, the Bulldogs scored the next seven and remained in control for most of the first half. Marquette (3-2) did not have an early answer for State’s big-man tandem of Tolu Smith and Will McNair Jr. The Bulldogs dominated the paint at both ends, forcing Marquette to shoot from the perimeter.
The Eagles were just 7 of 23 from the floor in the first half, making just two of their 14 3-point attempts. Marquette finished 8 of 28 from behind the arc. The Bulldogs held Marquette’s top snipers, Jones and David Joplin, to a combined 2 of 14 from 3-point range.
“Mississippi State had a lot to do with that. They deserve a lot of credit,” said Shaka Smart, the former VCU and Texas coach who led the Eagles to the 2022 NCAA tournament in his first season at Marquette. “We have to find a way to score when we’re not making 3s.”
Jans said he was “anxious” for a game like this, and the hostile crowd added to an atmosphere his team needed to play in following four decisive wins.
“It was definitely a road game,” said senior forward Tolu Smith. “We barely had any fans here, but the ones we did have, we were excited to have that little group here.”
Despite the poor shooting, State’s saving grace was second-chance points, with 15 offensive rebounds as part of their 42 team rebounds leading to 12 points.
“The ball wasn’t falling in the hole, so we had to find a way to contribute,” said Smith, who finished with career highs of 16 rebounds and six assists to go with seven points. “Whatever it takes to win, we’re going to do.
“Plays like that, getting a second chance, are what we emphasize.”
Marquette cut into the Mississippi State advantage to open the second half. The Eagles tied things at 33-33 with an Oso Ighodaro dunk with 11:56 remaining. A layup by Jones coming out of the under-12 timeout gave the Eagles their first lead since the game’s first bucket. The teams then went back and forth, trading the lead five times with four ties. A Shakeel Moore layup with 1:26 remaining broke a 50-50 tie and gave the Bulldogs the lead for good.
State converted just 11 of its 21 free-throw attempts, and Jans joked that he needs to “fire” himself as the free-throw coach. But Eric Reed and Dashawn Davis each drained a pair of free throws in the final nine seconds when it mattered most.
“You just think about shooting when there’s nobody there, like practice,” said Reed, who had a team-high 15 points.
Mississippi State (5-0) advances to play Utah (4-1) at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in the championship game. The Utes held on for a 68-64 win over Georgia Tech in Monday’s first game.
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