Mississippi St. 86
STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP)—Somebody finally solved the riddle of how to neutralize Florida State’s Al Thornton.
Mississippi State forced him to the bench with early foul trouble, then shouldered its way into the NIT semifinals with a frenetic 86-71 win over Florida State on Tuesday night.
“We went at him, forced him to guard us and got some calls,” Mississippi State coach Rich Stansbury said.
He made it sound simple, but few have contained Thornton this season like the Bulldogs (21-13) did. The North Region’s top seed limited one of college basketball’s most dynamic players to 22 minutes and 16 points for the second-seeded Seminoles (22-13).
Thornton drew two personal fouls in the first 4 minutes of the game, then two more in the first 5 minutes of the second half. Without their star, the Seminoles wilted under Mississippi State’s ball-hawking man-to-man defense.
The Bulldogs’ pressure resulted in 15 steals and 25 turnovers, and the game would have been out of hand midway through the first half without the play of Florida State’s Isaiah Swan.
Swan scored 31 points, including nine 3-pointers, to keep the game within reach.
“We had to do a big job on Thornton, but what about Swan,” Mississippi State forward-center Charles Rhodes said. “I haven’t ever seen a shooter shoot like he did tonight. Swan looked like Thornton tonight. It’s a good thing they weren’t clicking. One guy ain’t going to ever beat us.”
Mississippi State has won five of six and nine of its last 12. The team has won seven straight at home to extend its school record to 16 home wins.
The Bulldogs will play the winner of the North Carolina State-West Virginia game in the NIT semifinals next Tuesday at Madison Square Garden.
With Thornton on the bench, Jamont Gordon became the most athletic player on the floor and took over the game for the Bulldogs. He finished with 16 points and seven assists, and earned the respect of Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton.
“He was almost able to get into the lane at will,” he said. “He is a special player who creates unusual problems for other point guards.”
The 6-foot-4 sophomore was under fire two months ago, but improved dramatically as the season wound down.
Rhodes added 14 points, Dietric Slater scored 13 and three others scored 10 or more points for the Bulldogs, who advanced to the semifinals of the NIT for the first time.
Thornton was only three points below his average of 19.8 points per game, but wasn’t a factor playing with four fouls much of the second half. He failed to reach 700 points for the season, finishing 10 shy.
The Bulldogs built a 42-29 halftime lead with a kinetic defense that led to eight steals, 15 Seminoles turnovers and 17 points off those turnovers in the first 20 minutes. They also drew three charges and pushed the ball mercilessly in transition.
Mississippi State went right at Thornton from the start. And with the Seminoles’ most athletic player out of the way, the Bulldogs used runs of 8-0, 9-0 and 8-3 at the end of the half to gain control. The Seminoles threatened briefly, but the Bulldogs outscored them 21-7 to end the half.
“I just wish we could have turned the ball over half those times and see what would happen,” Hamilton said.
The young Bulldogs now head to New York City with a chance to prove they’re one of the best college basketball teams still playing, regardless of tournament. It’s likely Hamilton will cheer them on.
“I love this team,” Hamilton said of Mississippi State. “I love the body language, I love the communication, I love the patience that they display. Rick has done a tremendous job with this team and this program.”