Mississippi State survives, beats Florida in OT at SEC Tournament

Published 4:17 pm Thursday, March 9, 2023

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Sitting on the bubble for an NCAA Tournament berth, Mississippi State was just a few seconds away from sweating out a long weekend until Selection Sunday.

One great pass and one clutch basket changed all of that.

Tolu Smith scored a career-high 28 points, including a go-ahead basket in overtime with 4.3 seconds left, and Mississippi State beat Florida 69-68 on Thursday in the second round of the SEC Tournament.

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Mississippi State (21-11) advanced to play top-seeded Alabama in the quarterfinals on Friday, and likely shored up its spot in the NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs entered the SEC Tournament as one of the last teams in the 68-team NCAA field according to most analysts.

“At the end of the day, when you’re in these situations, it’s find a way, survive and advance. That’s what we did,” Mississippi State coach Chris Jans said.

Alabama won both regular-season meetings with Mississippi State, 78-67 in Starkville and 66-63 in Tuscaloosa. Those were part of a stretch of eight losses in nine games for the Bulldogs. They’ve gone 9-3 since then to play their way back into contention for the NCAA Tournament.

“I feel like we played them good both times. We made crucial mistakes last time, a couple bad calls. But we’re definitely ready to play them again,” Mississippi State guard Dashawn Davis said.

Smith started overtime against Florida with a three-point play and Cameron Matthews dunked it on Mississippi State’s next possession. Davis had his second straight assist that led to a dunk when he lobbed it for Shawn Jones Jr. for a highlight one-handed finish and a 64-59 lead.

Florida missed a 3-pointer and Smith extended the lead to seven points with a shot in the lane, off another assist by Davis. The Gators rallied, though.

Florida freshman Riley Kugel made a 3-pointer with 37.1 seconds left to pull within 67-64 and Mississippi State turned it over near midcourt before Kugel was fouled on a drive. Kugel made two free throws, the Bulldogs turned it over again and Niels Lane scored with 11.8 left to give Florida a 68-67 lead.

Mississippi State elected not to call a timeout and Davis drove the lane to find Smith open for a basket. Smith waited for two Florida defenders to jump past, then laid it in. It was the last of eight assists for Davis, who also scored nine points.

“Honestly, man, I thought Dashawn was going to lay it up,” Smith said. “At the last minute, he passed it to me. I thought it was a great play on his part. I thought it was just a great play.”

Davis also thought he was going to shoot it until the last possible moment.

“No, it wasn’t drew up. It was me playing instinct,” Davis said. “The guy stepped up. I seen Tolu was open so I just gave it to him.”

The Bulldogs called a timeout to set up their defense. Florida guard Myreon Jones inbounded it and got it back, but his long 3-pointer was off the mark at the buzzer.

“With four seconds, the message is you got either two dribbles and one pass or three dribbles and a shot, and then you got to get that thing up,” Florida coach Todd Golden said. “You would like a higher percentage shot only being down one. But you have to get one up, period. Got to live with it a little bit.”

Shakeel Moore scored 12 of his 13 points in the first half for Mississippi State. Smith also grabbed 12 rebounds and went 10-of-17 from the free throw line.

Kugel finished with 14 points for Florida (16-16). Jones was held scoreless in the first half and finished with 11 points. Six of Jones’ points came at the end of regulation on a pair of 3-pointers. He had a chance to win it at the buzzer but his 3 came up short.

“At the end of the day, we got two of those up,” Golden said of Jones’ two game-winner attempts. “You hope one of them falls to find a way to win that game.”