Mississippi State, Louisiana Tech to bid for NIT final

NCAA Basketball

It what is expected to be a dogged affair, Mississippi State and Louisiana Tech are set to meet in an NIT semifinal on Saturday at Frisco, Texas.

Mississippi State (17-14) and Louisiana Tech (23-7) not only are both nicknamed Bulldogs, they both will enter as No. 4 seeds.

For Mississippi State, the big question is whether talented 6-10 center Tolu Smith will be available. He sat out the team’s dramatic 68-67 win over Richmond on Thursday, reportedly due to COVID-19 protocols and contact tracing.

Smith leads his team in rebounds (8.4 per game) and ranks third in scoring (12.6 points).

Iverson Molinar leads Mississippi State in scoring (16.8 ppg), and D.J. Stewart tops the team in assists (3.1) while ranking second in scoring (16.2).

Mississippi State reached the semifinals by knocking off top-seeded Saint Louis 74-68 in the first round of the reduced 16-team event, then slipped past Richmond on a 3-pointer by Stewart with two seconds remaining.

“I was either going to lay the ball up or go for the win,” Stewart said. “I chose to go for the win.”

Besides his dramatic shot, Stewart is averaging 21.0 points in his two NIT games. Molinar is averaging 18.5 points in his two NIT games.

Stewart said defeating the Spiders was a group effort.

“Everybody knew they had a bigger role with Tolu out,” Stewart said.

Louisiana Tech will be trying to defeat an SEC team for the second time in this tournament. On March 19, Tech defeated Ole Miss 70-61 as freshman Kenneth Lofton Jr. scored a season-high 22 points.

In a 72-65 quarterfinal victory over Western Kentucky on Thursday, the hero was Kalob Ledoux, who went 6 of 7 from 3-point range and finished with 20 points, tied for the game high.

Louisiana Tech set a program postseason record against Western Kentucky, making 11 three-pointers. The team shot 61.1 percent from distance.

“I’m so proud of our team,” Tech coach Eric Konkol said. “Now it’s just down to four of us (in the NIT semifinals).”

For the season, Tech is led in scoring by Isaiah Crawford (11.8 points per game), Ledoux (11.5) and Lofton (11.4).

Lofton is averaging 16.5 points and 7.0 rebounds in the two NIT games. Ledoux has made 23 three-pointers in his past seven games.

Louisiana Tech is 15-3 in its past 18 contests, including 8-1 over the most recent nine games.

Mississippi State leads the all-time series, 10-5, but Louisiana Tech won the most recent meeting in 2019 winning 74-67 on the road.

A victory would put Louisiana Tech in an NIT final for the first time in program history. Mississippi State lost its two previous NIT semifinal games, most recently in 2018.

–Field Level Media

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