NIT Championship: Mississippi State falls to Memphis

Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, Tupelo
·3 min read

Mar. 28—FRISCO, Texas — Mississippi State's postseason run came to an end in the NIT Championship on Sunday afternoon.

No. 1 seed Memphis beat the No. 4 seed Bulldogs, 77-64, in the finals. Tied at 33 points at the half, Memphis outscored Mississippi State 44-31 in the second half to pull away.

Mississippi State ends an up-and-down season with a 18-15 overall record.

The Bulldogs looked to have momentum after outscoring Memphis by nine points in the last three minutes of the first half to tie the game, 33-33, but Memphis used a 13-4 run in the first five minutes of the second half to pull away.

During that run, Boogie Ellis made back-to-back 3-pointers to turn a 40-37 lead to 46-37.

Ellis finished with a game-high 23 points.

"Bottom line is, when we started the second half, I wanted us to get off to a good start because of how poorly we started the first half," head coach Ben Howland said. "It really didn't happen for us. We struggled to score again and struggled to get stops, so it allowed them to break open there."

After scoring over twenty points in each of the last three games in the NIT, Memphis was able to shut down MSU's D.J. Stewart from scoring.

Stewart finished with only four points in the game on 1 of 10 shooting, and he was held scoreless in the first half. Molinar also struggled in the game and finished with six points, all in the first half.

"We're not gonna win many games when DJ and Iverson are only 3 of 17," Howland said.

With Stewart and Molinar only combining for 10 total points, freshmen Cameron Matthews and Deivon Smith picked up the scoring load.

Matthews, starting in place of Tolu Smith, scored a career-high 19 points on 6 of 13 shooting and was 3 of 5 from 3-point range. He scored 11 points in the first half. Deivon Smith scored 17 points.

"At first they were just leaving me open and I got a feel for the game," Matthews said. "I started making shots and in the second half, I just got my way driving to the rim and making free throws."

Not having Tolu Smith in the lineup finally caught up to the Bulldogs. Smith, the SEC's leading rebounder this year, missed the last three games due to contact tracing and COVID-19 protocols.

In his absence, Memphis out-rebounded Mississippi State 44-36 and the Tigers grabbed 13 offensive rebounds, which led to 11 second chance points.

Memphis guard Lester Quinones, at 6-foot-5, grabbed a game-high 16 rebounds, five of which were on the offensive glass.

For MSU, Matthews was able to grab six rebounds in addition to his 19 points, and senior Abdul Ado grabbed 11 rebounds in most likely his last game of his career.

With no seniors on the roster, the Tigers (20-8) won 11 of their last 13 games. The only setbacks in that span were a pair of one-possession losses six days apart against NCAA Elite Eight team Houston.

"We want to win championships, and the NIT is just a start," Hardaway said.