TAMPA, Fla. – It’s been about two years since Mississippi State head coach Ben Howland wore a suit and tie for a basketball game. Like many staffs around the country, for no particular reason, Howland and his group adopted more casual gameday attire during the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Thursday for MSU’s first game at the Southeastern Conference Tournament against South Carolina, the suit was back.
“I just thought it’d be good to be really good-looking here,” Howland would later quip.
Howland looked sharp. His Bulldogs did too. As a result, State will keep on playing at the Amalie Arena.
The Bulldogs rode a dominant second-half effort to a 73-51 win over the Gamecocks. It was only one game of what MSU hopes is four down in Tampa, Florida, but it was certainly an outstanding way to start.
It was a victory fueled by defense, particularly over the last 20 minutes, as State limited South Carolina to just 12.9 percent shooting (4-for-31) in that stretch.
“I thought the second half, our defense was incredible,” Howland said. “We did a better job of pressuring the ball. I thought our defense really picked up in the second half. I was really excited about the performances of our guys.”
The Bulldogs cooled off a Gamecock group that was lighting up the scoreboard from three-point range in the first half. South Carolina made five 3s prior to halftime. The made shots from outside the arc kept the Gamecocks neck and neck with MSU as the squads went to the intermission with State clinging to a two-point lead at 36-34.
When the teams came out of the locker room, the Bulldogs blew the game open. With South Carolina unable to score consistently against MSU, State built a 10-point lead less than five minutes into the period. South Carolina was able to shrink its deficit to just three points only a couple of moments later, but a Shakeel Moore trey with 7:44 left capped off an 11-2 Mississippi State run that gave the Maroon and White a 58-46 advantage. The Bulldogs led by double figures the rest of the way.
The lopsided win of course took a group effort. There was Tolu Smith’s double-double as he scored 20 points and had 12 rebounds.
“He did a lot of nice things, and his teammates did a great job of feeding him,” Howland said of Smith.
Iverson Molinar scored 19. Moore tallied 10, Garrison Brooks added nine and Andersson Garcia – making his first career start – scored seven while bringing down 14 huge boards.
Howland was full of praise for his guys.
“When I look at Shakeel Moore’s stats for the night, I went straight to the plus/minus,” Howland said. “When [you only count the moments] he was in the game, we were up 31. He has five assists, only one turnover. He had great defense. He shot the ball. When you’re in there and your team is up 31, that’s big.
“I thought Iverson did a great job for us and manufactured points. He handled the South Carolina pressure they were throwing at as all night long. [Derek Fountain] gave us great minutes off the bench. He scored six points in his 12 minutes. I need to continue to play him because he gives us an offensive threat off the bench at the power forward position.”
As a group, the Bulldogs outshot the Gamecocks by 12 percent. They outrebounded South Carolina by 10. State had three fewer turnovers. MSU got to the free-throw line eight more times and hit nine more shots from the charity stripe than the Gamecocks.
Mississippi State outperformed South Carolina at basically every turn in most every way. Or put another way, the Bulldogs just looked good – much like their head coach in his formal outfit.
So given Thursday’s result, it bears asking. Will Howland go back to the same suit on Friday when State faces Tennessee in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals?
“I could wear this one every day if I had to, but I have another suit,” Howland said. “It’ll be a different one [Friday].”
There’s a fresh suit coming. There’s a new day to anticipate.
The Bulldogs couldn’t have asked for any more on this night.