Smith scores career-high 27 to lead Mississippi State 72-69 past UF

Special to Gatorsports.com
Mississippi State guard D.J. Stewart Jr. (3) handles the ball while defended by Florida guard Tre Mann (1) during the first half Saturday at Humphrey Coliseum in Starkville.

STARKVILLE, Miss. — Florida is already without SEC Preseason Player of the Year Keyontae Johnson. Add to that the absence this week of starter Scottie Lewis because of health and safety protocols.

The Gators couldn't afford to be without the services of another key player against a taller and physical Mississippi State team Saturday. But they did when 6-foot-7 Anthony Duruji had to sit out most of the game in foul trouble.

Mississippi State took advantage, as Tolu Smith scored a career-high 27 points and grabbed 14 rebounds to lead the Bulldogs to a 72-69 victory over Florida.

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Who: Tennessee (10-1, 4-1 SEC) at Florida (6-4, 3-3)

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday

TV: ESPN

Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850

The 6-foot-10 Smith was 11-of-13 shooting and posted his fifth double-double this season. His 6-11 frontline partner Abdul Abu added 11 points on 5-of-5 shooting with nine rebounds. Mississippi State (9-5, 4-2 SEC) dominated the paint, outscoring the Gators 52-28.

"In the future, we'll add a little more resistance than that and and play with a little more toughness," UF coach Mike White said. "You look at rebounding discrepancy and you think it's big-on-bigs. That's not always the case. It was a few times, but what I saw in real time was our bigs contesting some shots, even blocking some, and our guards just not doing a good enough job of mixing it up, getting in there with rotational block-outs and putting their bodies on their bigs. Even if they don't get the ball, we have to compete."

Florida was overmatched down low, getting outrebounded 47-26, including 15-6 on the offensive end. MSU also had the advantage with second-chance points at 18-4. 

"Every game in this league is going to be physical," junior forward Colin Castleton said. "We have to know that, we have to understand that, and we have to come into each game as a team and rebound together, box out and play more physical," "That's all it comes down to. We just didn't get the job done." 

The Gators didn't go away quietly. They led 29-28 late in the first half, but surrendered the last two baskets of the period, then the first four of the second found (all in the low post) and found themselves down 11. 

The Gators pulled back to within 56-52 after a Castleton layup at the 8:00 mark. State regrouped behind a Iverson Molinar coast-to-coast transition layup, a Tolu Smith layup from Deivon Smith and a Deivon Smith up-and-under to stretch the scoreboard back to 67-58 with 1:59 remaining.

Florida had one last finishing kick as State went 4-of-8 at the foul line down the stretch. Tre Mann scored seven points from there before missing an awkward and contested 3-pointer at the buzzer.

Iverson Molinar added 13 points — he has scored in double figures in all 11 games he has played — and D.J. Stewart Jr. had 11 for the Bulldogs, who made only 1 of 8 3-pointers and 13 of 24 free throws. But their inside scoring and rebounding advantage made the difference.

Tyree Appleby made all 11 of his free throws and scored 20 points for the Gators (6-4, 3-3), with Castleton adding 16 points and six blocks after blocking eight in his previous game. He is the first SEC player with six-plus blocked shots in consecutive games since LSU’s Jordan Mickey in the 2014-2015 season. Mann scored 14 points.

The Bulldogs have won three straight over the Gators for the first time since the 1982-83 season.

"When I look at Tolu and Abdul (Ado) combined, I thought Abdul was absolutely phenomenal today," MSU coach Ben Howland said. "Combined with him and Tolu, they were 16-18 from the field with 23 rebounds, 38 points and six blocks. That's a real phenomenal night for those two bigs. I just absolutely loved it."

Mississippi State 72, Florida 69

FLORIDA (6-4, 3-3 SEC)

Castleton 7-13 2-3 16, Duruji 2-4 0-0 4, Appleby 4-7 11-11 20, Locke 3-10 0-0 8, Mann 6-17 1-2 14, Ruzhentsev 1-4 0-0 3, Glover 0-1 0-0 0, Payne 2-3 0-0 4, Osifo 0-2 0-0 0, Jitoboh 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-61 14-16 69.

MISSISSIPPI STATE (9-5, 4-2)

Ado 5-5 1-2 11, J.Johnson 1-4 1-2 3, T.Smith 11-13 5-10 27, Molinar 5-13 2-2 13, Stewart 4-15 3-4 11, D.Smith 2-6 1-2 5, Matthews 1-4 0-2 2, Post 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 29-60 13-24 72.

Halftime_Mississippi St. 32-29. 3-Point Goals_Florida 5-19 (Locke 2-6, Appleby 1-3, Ruzhentsev 1-3, Mann 1-5, Duruji 0-2), Mississippi St. 1-8 (Molinar 1-1, Matthews 0-1, D.Smith 0-1, J.Johnson 0-2, Stewart 0-3). Rebounds_Florida 22 (Castleton 7), Mississippi St. 43 (T.Smith 14). Assists_Florida 11 (Mann 6), Mississippi St. 14 (D.Smith 4). Total Fouls_Florida 17, Mississippi St. 15.