Three-Pointers Lift Liberty Past Men’s Hoops, 84-73
MELBOURNE, Florida – D.J. Stewart Jr. matched a career-high with 20 points, while Tolu Smith delivered another career-best performance with 20 points of his own, but the Mississippi State men’s basketball team fell 84-73 to Liberty during Thursday’s third place game of the Space Coast Challenge at Titan Field House from the Eastern Florida State campus.
The Bulldogs (0-2) rattled home 21 of their 27 field goals from inside the paint en route to 42-18 advantage in paint points.
Liberty (1-1), who has totaled 59 victories over the last two seasons good enough for second-most in the nation, lived from beyond the arc and drained 19 of its 27 shots from three-point territory. The 19 triples are the most allowed by MSU during a single-game.
Once again, Mississippi State won the battle of the boards by a 29-19 margin. The Bulldogs also tallied 17 assists on its 27 baskets.
Stewart Jr. equaled his career-best with 20 points on 8-of-15 shooting. The Grace, Mississippi product also came away with 20 points during an 86-73 victory over Tennessee on Feb. 1 last season. He also handed out four assists and added three rebounds.
Tolu Smith filled the box score with 20 points, seven rebounds and two blocks. He was an efficient 7-of-11 from the floor and converted on 6-of-8 at the free throw line.
Abdul Ado garnered a solid all-around effort with 14 points, five rebounds and a block. He knocked down all five of his field goal attempts and hit on 4-of-5 at the charity stripe.
Deivon Smith made it four players in double figures for the Bulldogs. He notched 10 points, five assists against two turnovers, five rebounds and two steals.
Jalen Johnson was MSU’s top performer off the bench with seven points, four rebounds and two assists.
For the contest, MSU turned in a 27-of-47 shooting effort (57.4 percent), a 4-of-10 clip on its three-point attempts (40.0 percent) and was 15-of-19 at the foul line (78.9 percent).
The Bulldogs dialed up 17 assists versus 13 turnovers, while Liberty had 22 assists and seven turnovers.
The Flames countered with a 28-of-53 field-goal mark (52.8 percent), were 19-of-39 on three’s (48.7 percent) and 9-of-14 on free throws (64.3 percent). Liberty had five players register double figures, headed by Darius McGhee’s 23 points and Elijah Cuffee’s 17 points. The duo combined to hit 12 three-pointers. Chris Parker secured 10 points and 10 assists for Liberty.
FROM THE BENCH WITH COACH HOWLAND
“We were planning on having four games under our belt prior to getting here when we scheduled this. We had a chance to pull out of it, but I didn’t think that was the right thing to do. It was obviously difficult to start the season with these two teams [Clemson and Liberty] without getting some minutes under our belt. Our young guys will grow from it. We’ll get better, and we’ll improve. It will obviously be helpful to have Iverson [Molinar] back, which we expect to have him back after one more game.”
“We spent 20 minutes during our shootaround working on our foul shooting and really getting focused on it. I thought that Abdul [Ado] and Tolu [Smith] in particular were very good there. They were 10-for-13, big improvement from yesterday. We did some good things. I thought offensively we were much better tonight than we were Clemson. I thought yesterday we had a much better defensive effort. I told the team this, we’ve got to put the two games together and play a solid game of defense with a really good solid performance of offense.”
“I thought that Deivon [Smith] did a good job. It’s a tough baptism to go against two really good teams that are really well-coached and be in all of those ball screens. I think this was a real eye-opener for him. This is major college basketball for him now. This is what it’s going to be like against really good teams. He showed a lot of toughness the way he battled. I think he’s going to get better and better. Again, like you said, he did not turn the ball over. He got a little more aggressive shooting tonight, which is good. We’ve got to get him to keep being aggressive with his shot. We ended up shooting 57 percent from the field for the game and lose because the other team has so many three’s and shot almost 50 percent from the three. Again, I give Liberty credit. They made some tough three’s.”
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
The first 20 minutes featured six ties and eight lead changes. Liberty build a 15-8 advantage at the 16:48 mark on the strength of five three-point baskets.
Mississippi State ripped off seven consecutive points over the next 2:09 off the clock to draw even at 15-15 with 14:39 left. Tolu Smith ignited the spurt with a traditional three-point play, and D.J. Stewart Jr. buried a midrange jumper to knot the score.
The Bulldogs snatched a 29-28 edge with 5:55 to go as Deivon Smith turned defense into offense with a steal and a layup.
The two teams played within four points of each other down the stretch. On the half’s final possession, Stewart Jr. dished the ball to Tolu Smith, who canned a 12-foot jumper with four seconds remaining to carry MSU to a 41-40 lead at halftime.
The Stewart Jr.-Tolu Smith combo combined for 26 of Mississippi State’s 41 points on a solid 10-for-15 shooting clip. MSU owned the interior with 26 of the game’s 38 points in the paint.
The Flames continued their success from the three-point line out of the locker room. Back-to-back treys courtesy of Micaiah Abii and Darius McGhee vaulted Liberty ahead 46-41. A driving layup from Chris Parker ended a 13-1 run for the Flames and stretched their advantage to 53-42 with 16:13 left.
Trailing 63-51 at the 9:25 mark, the Bulldogs tallied eight of the next 10 points to draw within 65-59 with 7:01 to go. Tolu Smith got a layup off a nice feed from Jalen Johnson. Then, Stewart Jr. sank a left wing three-ball. Abdul Ado sliced the deficit to six points on a transition layup and free throw
On four occasions when Mississippi State pulled back to five or six points, Liberty answered with a trey which enabled the Flames to salt away the 11-point decision.
Mississippi State welcomes Texas State to Humphrey Coliseum on Monday for its 2020-21 home opener. Tip time is slated for 7 p.m. CT televised by SEC Network and available online courtesy of the Watch ESPN app.
Visit www.HailState.com for the latest news and information on the men’s basketball program. Fans also can follow the program on its social media outlets by searching ‘HailStateMBK’ on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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