Tolu’s return powers Mississippi State past Bethune-Cookman

Published 7:42 pm Sunday, December 31, 2023

STARKVILLE (AP) — Mississippi State finished 2023 with a victory and, more importantly, the return of one of its best players to the lineup.

All-Southeastern Conference center Tolu Smith III came off the bench to total 16 points and nine rebounds in his first game of the season, and powered Mississippi State to an 85-62 victory over Bethune-Cookman on Sunday.

Smith sank all five of his shots and 6 of 7 free throws for the Bulldogs (11-2), who have won five in a row — all at home — to close out non-conference play. The senior missed the first 13 games of the season because of a foot injury.

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”Good to have him back,” a smiling Mississippi State head coach Chris Jans said in his postgame press conference. “We were all excited for him … Just happy for him and his family. It’s been a long road. For him to come back and get off to such a great start has to make him feel really good.”

Smith entered for the first time with 15:30 remaining in the first half and enjoyed a standing ovation from the Humphrey Coliseum crowd. He scored his first basket about a minute later, and had 12 points and four rebounds in the first half as State got out to a 41-22 lead at halftime.

Smith sank four shots and 4 of 5 free throws in the first half. He wound up playing 19 minutes in the game.

“I told myself I wasn’t going to have jitters when I got in, but when I got in, it was like a little roar when I walked on,” Smith said. “So, I kind of had a little chill, but Coach Jans made sure I locked in.”

Dashawn Davis made 5 of 8 shots with two 3-pointers, and finished with 12 points, for Mississippi State. Freshman reserve Josh Hubbard made three 3-pointers and scored 11, adding three steals. Shakeel Moore scored 10 points.

The Bulldogs shot 58.3 percent from the floor with seven 3-pointers in building the 19-point halftime lead. The Wildcats shot 32.3 percent, while going 1-for-8 from 3-point range and 1-of-4 at the foul line.

The Bulldogs shot 53 percent overall for the game and were 12-of-27 from beyond the arc. They also went 19-of-25 from the free throw line.

Jakobi Heady had 16 points and six rebounds to pace Bethune-Cookman (5-8). Dhashon Dyson scored 14, but missed all six of his 3-point attempts. Derrick Carter-Hollinger Jr. scored 12.

Mississippi State travels to play South Carolina in its Southeastern Conference opener on Saturday, Jan. 6 at 11 a.m.

“It was vital,” Smith said of winning the last game before SEC play begins. “Everyone needs a tune-up. I’m not trying to say Bethune-Cookman was a tune up. We played a great team that might win their conference. A game like that helped me get my rhythm and my flow back. Me being able to play with the team and just being on the court felt great.”