Mississippi State's Tolu Smith had a career-high 27 points and 14 rebounds for his fifth double-double of the season Saturday. The Bulldogs beat Florida 72-69 at Humphrey Coliseum. Photo by: Courtesy of Mississippi State Athletics
January 16, 2021 6:50:41 PM
STARKVILLE -- Tolu Smith wasn't going to let Mississippi State lose.
The 6-foot-10 forward carried the Bulldogs to a 72-69 victory against Florida with a career-high 27 points and 14 rebounds Saturday at Humphrey Coliseum.
"I was playing with confidence and playing as hard as I can," Smith said. "This was a must-win for us, so I just want to thank my teammates for getting me the ball."
The Western Kentucky transfer was efficient as ever, converting 11 of 13 shots and recording three blocks.
"(Tolu) really played the best game of his young career," MSU coach Ben Howland said. "I'm just so happy for him and proud of him."
And the Bulldogs needed every ounce of Smith's production.
An 11-point MSU lead with 1:36 left vanished into a one-possession game with 15 seconds left thanks to a combination of fouls, missed free throws and turnovers down the stretch. Florida point guard Tre Mann had a chance to send the contest into overtime but, realizing he couldn't get a clean shot off with the clock ticking down, tried to draw a foul beyond the arc from a defending Jalen Johnson. Johnson, who had to quickly set his feet in transition after D.J. Stewart missed what would have been a game-sealing layup, kept his ground and his arms in the air, resulting in Mann's game-tying attempt harmlessly catching nothing but air.
"He stayed down and made sure he didn't foul," Howland said. "That was a huge play."
It was the third straight win for MSU (9-5, 4-2 SEC) over Florida (6-4, 3-3), and one that was sorely needed after falling in a one-point home contest to Texas A&M on Wednesday.
"The last game we played left a bad taste in our mouths," senior center Abdul Ado said. "One thing I think we have to work on is to close out games. We're a little bit shaky when it comes to closing out games; we have to do a way better job."
Ado took advantage of every opportunity he had in the post, scoring 11 points on a perfect 5-of-5 shooting effort in addition to grabbing nine rebounds. But earlier Friday afternoon, the 6-foot-11 senior didn't know if he'd be able to participate in Saturday's contest -- or any in the near future.
Howland said Ado missed Friday's practice after he woke up feeling fatigued and with a sore throat. Ado, having already tested negative Thursday as part of the Southeastern Conference protocols, went to the MSU student health center for another COVID-19 test, in addition to getting tested for the flu, mono and strep.
"Honestly when I went to the student health center, I was praying for the test to come back negative," Ado said. "I wanted to win. I wanted to be around my teammates."
Ado received negative results on all of his tests, clearing him for action against the Gators. But he still felt under the weather, as Howland said his elite post defender had a "normal virus."
"I wasn't feeling like myself," Ado said. "At halftime, I was in the locker room with a jacket on. I feel pretty good right now though because of the win."
Ado's near double-double gave the Bulldogs a much-needed lift.
"I'm just so proud of his toughness," Howland said. "What a winner and a warrior Abdul is." Purely looking at the rebounding margin, it might puzzle some the game was as close as it was with the Bulldogs holding a 47-26 edge on the glass. But the Bulldogs were their own worst enemy after they committed 15 turnovers and shot 13 of 24 from the free throw line.
While MSU committed the same amount of turnovers it did in its loss Wednesday to Texas A&M, it handled a full-court press much more effectively, especially in the first half.
"We went back to the drawing board," Smith said. "Coach emphasized we needed to be more aggressive when facing the press. Our guards did a great job breaking the press and seeing the open guys."
Even though the Bulldogs dominated in the post with an absurd rebound margin combined with Smith's and Ado's scoring output, Florida forward Collin Castleton was a thorn in MSU's side down low. Twelve of Castleton's 17 blocks on the season have come in the last two games, after the Florida forward notched six blocks in back-to-back games against Ole Miss and MSU. Castleton was the first SEC player with at least six blocked shots in back-to-back games since LSU's Jordan Mickey in January 2015.
"He's a human flyswatter," Howland said of Castleton.
At halftime, MSU narrowly led Florida 32-39 before opening the second half on a 8-0 run to extend the advantage to double figures.
In addition to Ado and Smith's scoring efforts, Stewart chipped in 11 points and Iverson Molinar added 13 to give MSU four players in double figures. In his postgame press conference, Howland stressed the importance of distributed scoring, citing the Bulldogs' 7-1 record in which four players reached double-digit point totals.
MSU closes out its three-game homestand against rival Ole Miss at 8 p.m. Tuesday in Starkville.
Howland said freshman forward Cameron Matthews briefly left the team Friday to attend his grandfather's funeral but wanted to make it back in time to play today. The sixth-year MSU coach also offered his condolences to his young defensive star. In 15 minutes of action Saturday, Matthews grabbed four rebounds and scored two points.