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MSU opens SEC play with win over Arkansas

SOURCE: MSU Athletics
SOURCE: MSU Athletics(MSU Athletics)
Updated: Dec. 29, 2021 at 7:38 PM CST
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STARKVILLE, Miss. - Stop and start. Stop and start.

That pretty much sums up Mississippi State center Tolu Smith’s basketball season so far as he’s fought back from an offseason foot surgery, then a broken pinky toe only a few games after his return.Well, guess what? He’s started up once again and on Wednesday, the Southeastern Conference’s reigning rebounding king put the league on notice. It’s Tolu time.

Following more than three weeks off as his toe healed, Smith got back on the floor and led the Bulldogs to an 81-68 victory over Arkansas in both schools’ league opener. Smith scored a team-best 18 points, brought down six boards and had five steals.

All that Smith production MSU has missed since early December? Well, the Dawgs aren’t missing it now.

“I thought Tolu’s minutes were spectacular when you consider he’s only practiced maybe 10 times in the last four months,” MSU head coach Ben Howland said. “He was really good… To be our best, we have to have Tolu Smith in the lineup because he’s one of our top players without question. I’m just excited for him because he’s gone through so much adversity.”

It has indeed been a frustrating few months for Smith. Expected to be a centerpiece for the Maroon and White in 2021-22, Smith has had to wait his turn.

The first bump in the road was the summer foot surgery that kept him out of State’s first four games. He then suffered the broken pinky toe on his opposite foot virtually immediately upon his return.

Smith tried to play through it, but following MSU’s game against Minnesota back on Dec. 5, Howland had seen enough. MSU’s leader thought it’d be best for Smith to take some more time off.

“Mentally, it’s been tough just trying to cope with everything,” Smith admitted.

Still, Smith soldiered through and there he was on Wednesday, front and center in a game that has put a renewed jolt into this year’s Bulldog campaign.

State won nine of its 12 non-conference games but missed out on a few NCAA Tournament resume-building opportunities with losses to strong opponents Louisville, Minnesota and Colorado State.

Part of the issue in those defeats was that the Bulldogs haven’t been at full strength. Smith played hurt in the Minnesota game and then sat out against Colorado State. Reserve guard Rocket Watts – who had an offseason hip surgery – has battled soreness in that hip for much of the season. He actually returned himself on Wednesday after missing two weeks.

It wasn’t quite to the level of Smith, but Watts had his own comeback party against Arkansas. He shot 3-of-4 from the field and totaled seven points.

“It felt good to be back out there playing with my guys and coming out with a victory,” Watts said. “I feel like from now on, I should be fine. I’ve just got to keep working hard in practice and workouts to push that soreness off and get back in my rhythm and get back to myself.”

While Watts certainly enjoyed playing again, he was just as excited to see Smith back in the mix, knowing what it means for the Bulldogs.

“He’s so dominant getting rebounds, defending and scoring down there,” Watts said of Smith. “Getting him back gives us a big lift.”

Evidence of that lift was seen all over Wednesday’s stat sheet. Seven Bulldogs scored at least five points. Four – Smith, Iverson Molinar, Shakeel Moore and D.J. Jeffries – reached double figures.

Molinar totaled 16 and Moore had 15. Both had five assists. Jeffries scored 10 points with a pair of assists.

Fittingly, it was Smith who put MSU in front for good. Tied at 31-all with just 11 seconds before halftime, Smith gave the Bulldogs a two-point advantage on a slam off an assist from Moore. State took that lead into the intermission, then extended it in the second half.

By the time the final horn sounded, the message was loud and clear. Smith is back. The Bulldogs are getting back to full strength. They’re all feeling good about where they stand.

“I barely have gotten to play this season, so this SEC season, I’m really excited for it,” Smith said.

This team’s potential has been no secret. Wednesday might just be the day the Bulldogs got all their legs under them and started reaching for their incredibly high ceiling.

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