Mississippi State and Utah will meet with an early-season trophy on the line in the Fort Myers Tip-Off championship game on Wednesday night in Fort Myers, Fla.
Mississippi State beat Marquette 58-55, while Utah edged its opponent, Georgia Tech, in a 68-64 contest. The championship game will be amatch of power conference opponents and two teams searching to find an identity.
For Mississippi State (5-0), success hinges on the performance of post presence Tolu Smith. He helped the Bulldogs dominate Marquette in the paint with a game-high 16 rebounds to go along with seven points. Eric Reed Jr. (15 points) and Dashawn Davis (12) chipped in with double-digit scoring performances.
The Bulldogs, picked to finish in the lower half of the Southeastern Conference in preseason rankings, welcomed the challenge of playing in the Sunshine State against high-level opponents. They waltzed their way through three wins before making the trip but welcomed a bit more of a challenge that likens to the tests they may see when conference play begins.
"I told our guys leading up to this trip, 'We're going to find out where we're at,'" Mississippi State head coach Chris Jans said after the win over Marquette. "Win or lose, we're going to get some exposure. We're going to figure out how to get better from this. We needed to play a team that looked like us and had athletes like us. It's us against the world, and that's the way we want to have it."
Utah passed its first test against a deep Georgia Tech group that came up short of its first 4-0 start since the 2008-09 season. The Utes leaned on Gabe Madsen in the victory as they nearly gave up a double-digit first-half lead but withstood a handful of Yellow Jacket runs.
In its early-season body of work, Utah dropped its on-campus game of the Fort Myers Tip-Off to Sam Houston, but notched victories over Long Island, Cal State-Bakersfield and Idaho State. The Utes entered the season off an 11-win campaign and are rebuilding with new faces, but certainly didn't look like it in their tournament-opening win over Georgia Tech.
Utah welcomes its full complement of players into the fold, too, as Keba Keita, Luka Tarlac and Marco Anthony had missed at least one game with injury or illness.
"We are trying to figure things out here with a lot of different things," Utah head coach Craig Smith told The Deseret News after the Utes' win over Georgia Tech. "We really tried to simplify what we are doing, just so we are more aggressive and on attack."
Along with 16 points from Madsen, Utah had four other double-digit scorers in a balanced attack against Georgia Tech.
--Field Level Media