Smith wills MS State to victory vs. UF in OT thriller
Nashville, Tenn. --- No. 9 seed MS State (20-11, 8-10 SEC) escaped No. 8 seed Florida in overtime, 69-68, in the second round of the SEC Men's Basketball Tournament on Thursday at Bridgestone Arena.
Tolu Smith (28 points, 12 rebounds) was the star of the game as he kept the Bulldogs' run going, applying pressure throughout the contest. Smith had his fifth 20-point, 10-rebound game this season - which is the second-most by an SEC player. Smith's career-high 28 points were the most by a MS State player in the SEC Tournament in the past 25 seasons.
Smith's layup in the closing seconds also kept the Bulldogs' tourney run alive.
"We didn't come [to the SEC Tournament] to just win one game," Smith said. 'We came to take it all."
Florida entered the game coming off back-to-back wins without Colin Castleton in the lineup and MS State won eight of its last 11 games, emerging as one of the hottest SEC teams coming into the tournament.
The contest got off to slow start, but Shakeel Moore's seven points in the first four minutes shook off the jitters for MS State. The Gators kept it tight following Moore's run with a pair of baskets from both Riley Kugel and Jason Jitoboh - but that didn't last long.
Moore's breakaway layup at the 11:59 mark in the first helped the Bulldogs create separation, then followed up with three free throws after being fouled behind the arc. Despite a slow start from Bulldogs star Smith, they held a 24-15 lead midway through the opening half.
Smith then started cooking with a smooth layup and put himself on double-double watch early with five points and five rebounds over the next two minutes.
"It's a luxury to have him," MSU head coach Chris Jans said of Smith. "In the fall I said [before the season] that if we wanted to have the year that we all want to have, [Smith] had to be an SEC First-Team player, and he was. He delivered.
"Every night he knows he's going to get double-teams and people are going to come at him....I think everybody in the gym knows when we walk out, we're going to play inside-out through Tolu. He's handled it wonderfully all year long."
Dashawn Davis' 3-pointer as the half winded down created a 30-17 lead and was a pivotal point in MS State's momentum. Jans' smothering defense was too much, holding the Gators to only six made field goals with five minutes to go before halftime.
Kowacie Reeves and Alex Fudge's layups in the final minute of the half kept the Gators within striking distance at 36-26. MS State also held a decisive 23-14 rebounding advantage in the first half.
Florida came out the gate hot with a newfound energy that sparked a 16-3 run to open the second half before the Bulldogs were forced to call a timeout. Tyler Stevenson nailed a mid-range bucket following the timeout and hushed the Florida crowd a bit, slowing down the fiery run.
As the final 10 minutes approached, Florida and MS State began going basket-for-basket.
Reeves was fighting to will the Gators back into winning position, but Davis' steal and score with 3:30 remaining forced a Florida timeout and led to a 53-51 advantage. Smith seemed in command during the closing minutes until Myreon Jones hit a clutch 3-pointer to tie the game, 57-57, with 36 seconds to go.
Davis missed the go-ahead floater for MS State and Jones followed it up with a close, but failed, 3-point attempt - sending the game to overtime.
Smith overpowered two Florida defenders to kick off the overtime period by converting an and-one. Cameron Matthews busted into the lane on the ensuing play with an explosive jam, leading to an uproar of the crowd. An alley-oop to Shawn Jones Jr. took the ceiling off the arena and forced the Gators to call a timeout with 2:17 remaining in the period, with Mississippi State holding a 64-59 lead.
Kugel and the Gators weren't going down without a fight as he hit a 3-pointer and then made a free throw - bringing the game to a 67-66 score. Niel Lane hit a layup to give the Gators a one-point lead, but Smith iced the game with a quick two-point score in the final five seconds.
MS State will face 1-seed Alabama in the quarterfinals of the tournament on Friday at 1pm ET -- the game will be aired on SEC Network.
Florida (16-15, 9-9 SEC) is eliminated from the tournament.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Mississippi State Athletics contributed to this article.