FORT MYERS, Fla. – Mississippi State has given the old sports adage 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…