Defense Carries Dawgs To Fort Myers Tip-Off Title

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Mississippi State has given the old sports age further credence. Defense has won yet another championship.

In what’s become a recurring theme this season, the Bulldog defense was too tough and stingy for their opponent to overcome as MSU earned a 52-49 victory over Utah to capture the Fort Myers Tip-Off championship on Wednesday night at Suncoast Credit Union Arena. Despite only shooting 25.4 percent as a team itself, State was able to keep the Utes at bay to remain unbeaten.

“You may not love it all the time, but that’s how you’ve got to win college basketball games sometimes,” head coach Chris Jans said. “It’s not pretty. You’ve got to take them when you can get them…We missed 50 shots, but the best part about it was that we won.”

It marked the fourth time already this season, MSU held its opponent to under 50 points. State hasn’t allowed more than 55 points in a contest in any of its first six games.

The defensive prowess has likely not been as valuable at any point this year as it was on Wednesday. Though the Dawgs seemingly couldn’t get a shot to fall, the Utes were equally as offensively challenged. Utah made just 17 of its 52 shots from the field to leave the door open for Mississippi State.

“We just stuck with it on defense,” guard Dashawn Davis said. “We played tough. We played together. We just kept going.”

MSU led 25-21 at halftime, but despite State’s defensive success, Utah was able to find enough second-half scoring to push in front of the Bulldogs for a large chunk of the final 20 minutes. The Utes led by as many as five points in the period and held a 40-35 advantage over State with 11:23 to play.

The situation was getting dire for the Dawgs.

“[Utah’s defensive] gameplan was obvious from the jump,” Jans said. “We figured they’d pack it in and dare us to shoot it. They certainly didn’t disappoint…We were struggling to get inside because they were just surrounding Tolu Smith.”

Jans said he determined State was going to have to hit a few 3-pointers to win the game. Fortunately, the Dawgs had Davis ready to step up and answer the call.

Over a nine-minute stretch, 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 on long-distance shots. He was 6-for-9 from beyond the arc. Davis has now scored a combined 30 points over the last two games, rising up as an offensive hero just when State has needed it most.

Davis was named to the Fort Myers Tip-Off All-Tournament Team, along with Smith, who was also chosen as the event’s Most Valuable Player. However Smith said if he had a vote, it’d have gone to someone other than himself.

“[Davis is] the MVP, I don’t care what anybody says,” Smith said. “I’m proud of him and all the shots he made. I was just telling him, ‘If you’re in rhythm, shoot it, shoot it, shoot it.’ He kept making them. We needed that uplift he brought to the game. That’s how we got the win.

It bears noting too, for anyone unaware. Davis did all this battling through some pain.

“He’s playing on a pretty hobbled ankle,” Jans said. “He hasn’t practiced since before the first game…If you really know him and watch him, he hobbled around. He wasn’t nearly as explosive as he usually is. He wasn’t getting in the paint. He made some shots Obviously. He’s been really gutty about it. He’s really stepped up when we’ve needed him.”

While Davis played his huge part Wednesday, Smith was once again able to be incredibly productive despite the attention he garnered from the Utes. The big man notched the 15th A double-double of his career, totaling 16 points and 16 rebounds.

DJ Jeffries added 10 for MSU. Only two other Bulldogs scored as Cameron Matthews tallied 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’s offensive progress to be found. In the meantime, the Dawgs will just keep right on being the grittiest defensive team they could possibly be.

“We’ve built this team with that mentality and that approach,” Jans said. “It’s the old cliché. Defense usually travels on a bus or a plane. I’ve believed in that my whole career. I’ve seen it happen so many times in my life. Certainly, we want to play better offense and I’ ve got to do a better job of putting them in better position.But if you can rely on [defense] to get you through some rough spots and rough halves and rough games, you can still find a way to win.”

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