NIT First Round Winner: Stewart Jr’s 15-point 2nd half fuels Mississippi State past scrappy St. Louis, 74-68

D.J. Stewart Jr. took control of game to lead Mississippi State to NIT Semifinals

March 20, 2021

FRISCO, Texas – D.J. Stewart Jr. piled up 15 of his team-leading 20 points during the second half, and Cameron Matthews secured a pair of critical steals inside the final 91 seconds to lift the Mississippi State men’s basketball team to a 74-68 victory over Saint Louis during Saturday’s NIT Round of 16 at the Comerica Center. 

The Bulldogs (16-14) move onto face Richmond (14-8) in Thursday’s quarterfinal round. Tip time is slated for 5 p.m. CT televised by ESPN2 and available online courtesy of the Watch ESPN app. 

State has won five of its last eight outings and is one of five SEC programs alive in postseason play. The Bulldogs also have won five of their last six NIT openers during the 2000s.

Stewart Jr. and Iverson Molinar fueled Mississippi State’s offensive attack with 39 combined points, coupled with eight assists, seven rebounds and two steals. The duo also sank 14-of-16 of its free throws attempts.

Stewart Jr. tucked away his seventh performance of 20-plus points and his 24th game in double figures this season. He handed out six assists to give him four-plus dimes in five of his last eight outings. The Grace, Mississippi, native became the 12th player in program history to garner 20 or more points during a NIT game.

Iverson Molinar also compiled his 24th game in double figures as he did the heavy lifting with 11 of his 19 points in the first half.

The freshmen trio of Derek FountainDeivon Smith and Matthews teamed up for 20 points, 10 rebounds, five steals and four assists.

Fountain collected 10 points on an effective 4-of-5 shooting effort ignited by a pair of three’s for his second career effort with double-digit points. His also added a career-best three steals and added three rebounds.

Deivon Smith amassed all eight of his points in the second half, while Matthews made an impact on the defensive end with six rebounds and the aforementioned two steals. Tolu Smith secured eight points, six rebounds and two steals.

Abdul Ado continued his climb up State’s record books with seven rebounds to eclipse Dave Williams (1966-67-68) and move into ninth place on the program’s all-time list. He also recorded four points.

Quentin Post rounded out the scoring for the Maroon and White with three points, two rebounds and an assist.  

Mississippi State hit on 25-of-50 from the field (50.0 percent), dialed up a 6-for-13 shooting clip from three-point territory (46.2 percent) and was an efficient 18-of-23 at the foul line (78.3 percent). It marked the ninth time that the Maroon and White has shot 50 percent or better this season.

The Bulldogs grinded out a 35-32 rebounding edge to win the battle of the boards for the 24th time in 30 games this season. Mississippi State was opportunistic and turned its seven offensive rebounds into an important 12-4 advantage in second-chance points.

Saint Louis (14-7) connected for a 27-of-64 shooting performance (42.2 percent), misfired on 16 of its 22 of its three-pointers (27.3 percent) and were 8-of-11 at the charity stripe (72.7 percent).

The Billikens had a quartet of players notch double figures highlighted by Javonte Perkins’ 21 points. Hasahn French managed a double-double with 17 points, 10 rebounds, four blocks and three steals, whereas Jordan Goodwin also filled the box score with 14 points, six rebounds, six assists and six steals. Terrence Hargrove Jr. chipped in 10 points off the bench for Saint Louis.  

FROM THE BENCH – COACH HOWLAND
“We beat an outstanding team today [in Saint Louis]. They have seniors who have been through all the wars before that are their three best players. I thought our guys did a fantastic job defensively, especially in the first half, and we did some important things in the second half … Overall, it was a great team win. We’re really excited to get this one to allow us to continue our season against Richmond on Thursday.

“D.J. [Stewart Jr.] came alive offensively. He really played well and hit some big shots. Iverson [Molinar] did a great job in the first half and finished strong down the stretch. Cameron Matthews’ minutes were huge. He had three big rebounds in the first half. All of them were in traffic. He had a couple big plays defensively late in the game – he got the steal with 45 seconds left that really iced it for us. Then, he also had a tie up where we got the ball back on the floor [late in the second half]. He dove on the floor for the ball, got tied up and the possession arrow was our way. So, that was huge as well.”

“This postseason opportunity for us has already been a huge blessing. These young guys – Deivon SmithCameron Matthews and Derek Fountain – they are all playing major minutes in a really important game, win or go home. It’s really exciting for me what we’re getting out of this and excited for the opportunity to keep playing.

FROM THE LOCKER ROOM – D.J. STEWART JR.
We’re just happy to be able to continue to play the game we love. The guys just stayed together collectively. We played hard together, we played well together and we came out with the win.

FROM THE LOCKER ROOM – CAMERON MATTHEWS
When I’m in [the game], I just try to do the best I can with the time I have. My role on the team is just to play defense and make plays. Practices were good [leading into the game]. We were just getting our mind ready to come out prepared and be ready to compete. We’re trying to win this NIT championship.

MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
The two teams traded runs during a back-and-forth, drama-filled second half.

Saint Louis would strike first and tallied 14 of the 20 points over a 4:23 span to turn a 42-35 deficit into a 49-48 lead with 12:22 remaining. Back-to-back buckets from Hasahn French inside the paint placed the Billikens on-top.

The Saint Louis advantage was short-lived, and the Bulldogs regained the lead for good on the ensuing possession. Deivon Smith and D.J. Stewart Jr. canned triples sandwiched between two Stewart Jr. free throws to spark an 8-2 spurt and vault the Bulldogs ahead, 56-51, with 9:16 left.

Saint Louis answered and drew within one point, 60-59, on a Javonte Perkins three-ball with 6:49 to go.

State fired back with a strong answer of its own as Iverson Molinar rattled home four free throws, a Stewart Jr. outlet pass found Derek Fountain all-alone in transition for a two-hand dunk and Stewart Jr. sank a midrange jumper on the left baseline to give the Bulldogs a 69-61 edge at the 4:12 mark.  

The Billikens put together one last charge and made it 71-68 on a French putback layup with 2:21 on the clock.

Mississippi State relied on its defense down the stretch and forced Saint Louis to miss its last three shot attempts. Cameron Matthews delivered a pair of timely steals inside the closing 91 seconds, while Stewart Jr. rattled home 3-of-4 during the final 40 seconds at the charity stripe to give him his seventh 20-point performance on the season and salt away the six-point triumph.

In the first half, Mississippi State used five consecutive points to erase an early five-point deficit and knotted the score at 5-5 with 18:13 remaining. Fountain opened the scoring for the Maroon and White with a triple from the top of the key courtesy of Tolu Smith, and Molinar provided the equalizer with a jumper.

The Bulldogs connected on seven straight field goals over a 5:03 span and ripped off an 8-2 run to close the hot streak en route to building a 21-14 advantage at the 11:01 mark.

Tolu Smith drained a turnaround jumper and provided a layup off an up-and-under move to give State its first lead at 9-7 with 15:31 left.

Then, Quentin Post delivered a midrange jumper followed by a Stewart Jr. late shot clock trey. Molinar capped the flurry with a traditional three-point play off a driving layup and hit a deep two-pointer on the right baseline for the seven-point spread.

Mississippi State took its largest lead of the opening stanza, 33-23 with 2:33 to go, as Fountain canned a left baseline three-ball. The Bulldogs would take a 33-26 advantage into the locker room as Molinar secured 11 of his 19 points during the first 20 minutes.

UP NEXT
Mississippi State advances to take on another Atlantic 10 Conference opponent, Richmond (14-8), during Thursday’s NIT Quarterfinal Round. Tip time is on-tap for 5 p.m. CT from UNT Coliseum in Denton, Texas, on the University of North Texas campus. The game will be televised by ESPN2 and available online courtesy of the Watch ESPN app. 

Visit www.HailState.com for the latest news and information on the men’s basketball program. Fans also can follow the program on its social media outlets by searching ‘HailStateMBK’ on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

COURTESY MISSISSIPPI STATE ATHLETIC COMMUNICATIONS

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