Mississippi State men's basketball survives scare against Richmond through Tolu Smith

Andy Kostka
Mississippi Clarion Ledger

If it hadn’t already been clear that Tolu Smith was back available for Mississippi State basketball, the forward received a feed, rose up to the rim and slammed home a two-handed jam.

Smith hung on the rim, the rust breaking off his game after a two-month recovery from offseason foot surgery. And while he earned a technical foul for that extra second grasping the iron, the two free throws awarded to Richmond were worth a moment spent savoring being back on the court.

"We were trying to tell him, like, I just came off a foot injury," Smith said. "So I'm not gonna jump and come down so fast."

The 6-foot-11 forward made his return Thursday in a loss against Louisville to open the Baha Mar Hoops Bahamas Championship in Nassau, scoring 10 points. But Smith looked crisper in Saturday’s 82-71 overtime win against Richmond (3-4) in the consolation game, with post moves and rebounds offering the Bulldogs (5-1) a look of what a healthy Smith can offer.

Mar 11, 2021; Nashville, TN, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs forward Tolu Smith (35) reacts after scoring during the first half against the Kentucky Wildcats at Bridgestone Arena. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

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"I think he's one of the best bigs in our conference," Mississippi State coach Ben Howland said, "and I think that was displayed today."

First, Howland awaited Rocket Watts’ return from an offseason hip surgery. Watts came back earlier this month, and while his influence has been muted, the Michigan State transfer adds depth to the backcourt.

And now Smith is back, giving Mississippi State its top rebounder and best frontcourt option again. Smith finished with his ninth career double-double, scoring a team-high 22 points and erupting in the second half to shoot 7-for-7. He added 11 rebounds , including five on the offensive end.

"I felt like the first half I was a little tired, just like the first game," Smith said. "But once I started moving up and down, I started feeling good, mostly in the second half. It feels good to be back."

Smith first showed that flash of mobility and size in the first half, when the Bay St. Louis native had his back to basket, with Richmond’s Grant Golden between him and the hoop. So Smith spun, dropping a shoulder to get around Golden and finishing with a reverse layup.

And after Smith was called for that technical foul for hanging on the rim, he only improved, rattling off six straight points at one point. But after Smith’s basket with 2:46 to play in the second half, the Bulldogs went scoreless the rest of the way, allowing Richmond to go on an 8-0 run to force overtime.

A late collapse

Mississippi State looked as if it would pull away from Richmond, but a late collapse changed those plans. Shakeel Moore fouled Jacob Gilyard on a 3-pointer. Gilyard completed the fo-point play before two more free throws from Tyler Burton — part of his 23 points — forced overtime.

The Bulldogs went cold in those final minutes, chucking up three 3-pointers after Smith’s basket had made it an eight-point lead.

Those are the attempts Howland would like the Bulldogs to avoid. Mississippi State shot just 1-for-15 from behind the arc in the loss to Louisville, and the Bulldogs have  performed best when controlling the paint. For most of Saturday’s outing, the paint belonged to Mississippi State, leading Richmond in rebounding 44-20, including 13 on the offensive end.

"Rebounding overall, the battle for the boards, winning that allowed us to win this game," Smith said.

No Javian Davis

With Smith returning, the frontcourt rotations have changed.

Howland stuck with the three-man frontcourt of D.J. Jeffries, Garrison Brooks and Smith for most of the time. Those three were imposing on offense, scoring a combined 44 points. But Cameron Matthews, Andersson Garcia and Derek Fountain also chipped in minutes.

Javian Davis, who has averaged  14.4 minutes in his first five games, didn't see any time on the floor. He had been ejected from Thursday’s loss to Louisville for a flagrant foul.

"I elected not to play him today," Howland said, before declining to elaborate on the reasoning. Still, the frontcourt imposed their will down low.

"Their size is a big part of their identity and what their strength is," Richmond coach Chris Mooney said.