Mississippi State head coach Chris Jans wondered earlier this week how his team would respond away from Humphrey Coliseum against an Akron squad that made the NCAA Tournament a year ago.
The Bulldogs answered their coach with an emphatic 73-54 victory on Friday night in Philadelphia, Pa., as part of the inaugural Bartstool Sports Invitational.
“It certainly wasn’t like the other night where we came out and played well early in the second half,” said Jans. “But we were down at halftime in the other game. Obviously, we relaxed tonight and we made some silly plays to allow them to get back in the game.
“But I thought that was the best part of the game because we faced adversity. The guys said the right things in the huddle and our huddles got tighter. They talked to each other about sticking together. That was a good sign and a good response from the guys.”
Tolu Smith led the Bulldogs (2-0) with 26 points and eight rebounds, just one point shy of tying his career high in points. DJ Jeffries added 15 points, including 10 in the first half, and Mississippi State ran away from Akron down the stretch.
Smith was 11 of 13 from the field and made 4 of 6 at the free throw line.
“My teammates were giving me the ball in the right spots,” said Smith. “I was making the right reads and playing through double teams. I made the right reads but I had a couple of bad turnovers.”
Xavier Castaneda had 20 points to lead Akron (1-1) and he was the lone Akron player in double digits.
Early in the second half, Akron rallied from an eight-point halftime deficit and used a 9-0 run to take a 39-38 advantage. But led by Smith and company, the Bulldogs put the game away with a 21-5 run, which was stamped by a Cameron Matthews 3 point with 8:28 left in regulation.
Most of that run came with Smith on the bench.
“I was so happy and ecstatic for my teammates,” added Smith. “Everyone was making shots and playing defense and rebounding.”
For the game, Mississippi State shot 53% from the field and made 7 of 14 behind the arc. The Bulldogs were 8 of 13 from the foul line and dominated the boards 43-25, including 11 offensive rebounds.
The Bulldogs held Akron to just 33% shooting and the Zips made just 6 of 27 of their 3 point attempts.
“Since Day 1, Coach Jans has been making defense of our vocal point,” said Jeffries, who was 6 of 11 from the field. “We are pressing people with our defense. I know we started slow (in the second half) but we got a couple of kills in the second half and got it going.”
Offensively, Jans was also pleased with his team’s showing from the perimeter. At one point, the Bulldogs made four straight 3 points and were 7 of 10 from 3 point territory before missing their final four 3 point attempts.
“I think everyone has to pick their poison,” Jans said. “Some will choose to go 1 on 1 (with Smith) and others will choose to try to shut it down inside. But we knocked our (perimeter shots) down tonight and we didn’t take a ton of them. I was impressed with our shot selection and I hope that continues.”
Despite not starting due to an injured ankle, Mississippi State point guard Dashawn Davis had eight points (3 of 3 from the field) and four assists. Cameron Matthews had seven points while Shakeel Moore had six points and six rebounds.
In the first half, Mississippi State got a combined 22 points from Smith and Jeffries and held a 35-27 halftime advantage. The Bulldogs shot 59% in the opening half, including 3 of 4 from 3 point range, but they had 10 turnovers. After a slow start on the boards, the Bulldogs out-rebounded Akron 21-13 in the first half.
The Zips shot just 30% in the first half and made just 3 of 15 beyond the arc. Akron was 8 of 11 at the foul line while the Bulldogs made 6 of 10 at the charity stripe.
Mississippi State has a quick turnaround this weekend as the Bulldogs return to action Sunday. Mississippi State plays host to Arkansas-Pine Bluff in a 2 pm tipoff at Humphrey Coliseum.