FRISCO, TEXAS - D.J. Stewart Jr. set the tone with 19 first half points, Iverson Molinar did the heavy lifting with 20 of his career-high 25 during the second half, and Derek Fountain registered 15 points as the Mississippi State men's basketball team used a total team effort to rout Louisiana Tech, 84-62, during Saturday's NIT Semifinals at the Comerica Center.
The victory enabled the Bulldogs (18-14) to punch their ticket to Sunday's NIT Championship Game where State will face Memphis (19-8). Tip time is slated for 11 a.m. CT from the Comerica Center in Frisco, Texas. The game will be televised by ESPN and available online courtesy of the Watch ESPN app.
The Bulldogs have won seven of their last 10 games to secure their spot in the program's first NIT final, and the 22-point margin of victory is the third-largest for a NIT contest in program history.
Stewart Jr. came out on fire and drained a quartet of three-pointers to fuel Mississippi State to six consecutive field goals during the opening 4:10 of the contest. Molinar dialed up a trio of three-balls of his own during a 1:48 span of the second half which propelled the Bulldogs to take a 20-point lead.
The sophomore guards held nothing back in the NIT Final Four round and teamed up for 48 points, which was their second-best output of the season. It marked the third time that Stewart Jr. and Molinar captured 20-plus points during the same game in 2020-21. Stewart Jr. also became the first player in program history to piece together three straight games of 20-plus points in a NCAA or NIT game.
The Molinar-Stewart Jr. combo shot a combined 15-of-29 from the field, canned nine of the team's 10 trifectas and were an efficient 9-of-11 at the free throw line to claim their 26th game each in double figures. Molinar's five treys also equaled a career-best, while Stewart Jr. notched four rebounds, four assists and two steals.
The 23 points for Stewart Jr. brought his season total to 524 points, which is sixth in program history for a sophomore and 15 away from passing former teammate Reggie Perry (2019-20). Molinar vaulted his season mark to 494 points, the eighth-most for a MSU sophomore.
Fountain fired in 15 points and rattled home 6-of-7 shooting effort coupled with six rebounds a career-high tying three assists. The 15 points are Fountain's second-best scoring performance just behind his 20 points versus LSU on 02/10/2021. Abdul Ado garnered eight points, seven rebounds and three blocks, whereas Javian Davis chipped in seven points, four rebounds and one steal. The three rejections brought Ado to 65 blocks and into a ninth-place tie with Tyrone Washington (1998-99) and Erick Dampier (1993-94) on MSU's single-season list.
Freshmen Deivon Smith and Cameron Matthews rounded out scoring for the Bulldogs with four and two points, respectively. Matthews tied a career-high with seven rebounds to go along with three assists and one steal. Smith tacked on five rebounds and two assists.
Mississippi State compiled a 29-of-52 shooting effort (55.8 percent), dialed up a 10-for-20 clip from three-point territory (50.0) and sank 16-of-24 free throws (66.7 percent). The Bulldogs have nine of 10 games when knocking down at least eight three's.
Mississippi State owned the battle of the boards with a 38-25 advantage, the 12th occasion in 2020-21 where State has outrebounded its opponent by 10-plus rebounds.
The Bulldogs held Louisiana Tech (23-8) to 23-of-61 shooting from the floor (37.7 percent), a 7-for-26 mark from beyond the three-point arc (26.9 percent) and a 9-of-15 outing at the charity stripe (60.0 percent).
Kenneth Lofton Jr. stuffed the stats sheet with 20 points, 10 rebounds, four steals, three blocks and three assists. Kalob Ledoux and Jacolby Pemberton notched 11 and 10 points, respectively, for the Bulldogs.
FROM THE BENCH - COACH HOWLAND
"I thought that D.J. Stewart Jr. got us off to a great start. He hit four three's in the first six minutes of the game, and they were all good, open shots. I thought that really gave us a lift and gave our guys a lot of confidence. I thought our defense, though, was outstanding. Abdul [Ado] was on their big [Kenneth Lofton Jr.] and while he ended up with 20 points, a lot of those were late in the game after the game was out of question."
"I thought Iverson [Molinar] was fantastic, especially in the second half, when he came down for three three's in a row. What I love that he's doing is that he's catching and shooting them [three-pointers]. He's the highest three-point percentage shooter on our team ... Tonight, if you look at his numbers, he took 13 shots and half of them were three's. He was 6-for-7 on them. That's what we want. He's a great shooter."
"Our field goal percentage defense was great. I thought our guys really played aggressively at both ends of the floor. We attacked the press [well]. I thought that our three freshmen, Deivon [Smith], Derek [Fountain] and Cameron [Matthews], were all fantastic today. You can see them growing before our eyes with the experience they're gaining in these games in the NIT."
"Derek [Fountain] shot the ball really well today, which was nice to see. He did some nice things, and he had some put backs. Deivon [Smith] runs the floor. He is going to be a critical element in tomorrow's game because of all the pressing we're going to see against Memphis. Cameron's [Matthews] defense on their leading scorer [Isaiah Crawford was great]. He [Crawford] is their best player. He's a third team all-league player [in Conference USA] this year. He was really not a big factor today because of Cameron Matthews and his defense."
"The beauty is that you get to keep playing. Here we are almost at the end of March, and our guys have had a very good finish to the season. To think, we beat Kentucky for the first time in the last 15 tries in the [SEC] Tournament. We got blown out by Alabama, and we responded the right way. Alabama is the best team in our league, and we played them tough in both regular season games. We bounced back and have had three really good games in a row against three very good teams."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Stewart Jr. was en fuego from the start as he rattled home a floater in the lane followed by four treys from all over the floor to stake the Bulldogs to a 17-5 advantage at the 15:50 mark. Mississippi State kept its double-digit lead for a majority of the stanza. Stewart Jr. drove and dish to Javian Davis for a reverse layup to give the Bulldogs their largest lead at 36-23 with 3:33 remaining.
The Maroon and White took a 41-29 spread into the locker room after a Derek Fountain trifecta from the top of the key inside the final minute.
Iverson Molinar got rolling with a trio of triples between 15:32 and 13:48 left on the clock to extend the advantage to 54-34. Deivon Smith set the Panama native up with a pair of assists.
Louisiana Tech would trim the deficit down to 13, 54-41, after a 7-0 spurt of its own. However, State responded with a Cameron Matthews second-chance layup in traffic to regain the momentum.
Ahead 68-53 with 5:04 to go, Fountain added a putback layup of his own. Molinar drove for a layup that turned into an old-school three-point play, and Abdul Ado rattled home a late shot clock hook shot to make it 75-57 at the 3:50 mark.
Molinar salted away his career-high performance and the 22-point blowout victory courtesy of a pair of free throws with 27 seconds remaining.
Mississippi State advances to face Memphis in Sunday's NIT Championship Game. Tip time is on-tap for 11 a.m. CT from the Comerica Center in Frisco, Texas. The game will be televised by ESPN and available online courtesy of the Watch ESPN app.