In what was arguably a must-win to remain in the NCAA Tournament conversation, the Mississippi State men’s basketball team bounced back from consecutive road losses and defended home court, defeating Georgia 75-62 on Wednesday.
A stellar performance from big man Tolu Smith carried a shorthanded Bulldogs team (15-8, 4-6 SEC) over its conference foe with the same mascot (14-9, 4-6 SEC) in what ultimately became a slugfest down the stretch.
With starting forward D.J. Jeffries out due to a knee injury he came down with during Saturday’s loss at Alabama, Chris Jans turned to Shawn Jones, Jr., and Keshawn Murphy to help man the ship in the veteran’s absence.
Things started off slow offensively for both programs with just 20 total points being scored in the first 10 minutes of action. Georgia held a 3-2 lead at one point, but Mississippi State countered to take a lead that the team would never relinquish.
MSU’s offense found a spark in the latter portion of the half. A triple by Shakeel Moore kickstarted an avalanche of scoring that Georgia could not overcome. Freshman sensation Josh Hubbard heated up in the stretch, connecting on a pair of threes and getting to the charity stripe after being fouled while attempting a shot from behind the arc.
UGA hit a few triples of its own to withstand the Mississippi State scoring surge. Down 14 with just under two minutes remaining in the half, Georgia guard Noah Thomason hit back-to-back threes to cut the deficit to eight. Both teams scored two points apiece in the waning seconds, giving MSU a 36-28 lead at the intermission.
Jans’ team flirted with disaster a few times, allowing UGA to creep back into the contest in an attempt to play spoiler on the road. Georgia opened up the second half on an 8-2 run to trail by just four at the 17:09 mark.
Mississippi State regained composure offensively and began to separate once again. Forward Cam Matthews helped move the needle of momentum in MSU’s favor after finishing a dunk while being fouled and draining the subsequent free throw. A trio of triples by three different MSU players and an open slam by Smith put Jans’ crew up 56-43 with 9:29 left in the game.
A three-minute Mississippi State scoring drought then left Georgia in prime position to drastically reduce the deficit — and they did. A 10-0 run in that stretch put Mike White’s team within one possession on the scoreboard for the first time in nearly 20 minutes.
However, an immediate 8-0 run by Mississippi State, started by a pair of clutch triples from Shawn Jones and Hubbard, with a dunk by Smith being the cherry on top gave MSU an 11-point advantage and momentum to close out strong.
Georgia was not quite ready to surrender. A 7-2 run highlighted by an RJ Melendez three that got UGA within six put the visitors within arms reach in crunch time, but the home team was just not going to lose. Mississippi State scored nine of the last 11 points of the game to amass the victory.
Smith led the way for Mississippi State with his eighth double-double of the season, this one consisting of 19 points and 12 rebounds. Three other MSU players had double figures. Hubbard scored 14 points, Moore had 11, and Murphy had 10.
Thomasson, with six made triples on the night, kept Georgia in the game, scoring nearly one-third of the team’s points with 20 on the scoreboard.
Next up for Mississippi State is a Saturday night battle at Missouri beginning at 7:30 p.m. central. The Tigers have yet to win a conference game this season.
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