11/11/2022 | 6:00 PM
Nov 11 (Fri) / 6:00 PM
STARKVILLE – Chris Jans was on a flight from Las Cruces, New Mexico, to Starkville shortly after taking over as Mississippi State’s head coach back in March. In his first interview after being hired at MSU, he described the style of play he planned to bring to the Bulldogs.
“It’s important to me that when the fans leave the arena, they’re not kicking the can and mumbling under their breath about lack of effort [from the team] or why aren’t they getting after it on the floor or why aren’t they playing hard,” Jans said at the time. “I think we’re going to be a blue-collar team. I think Starkville is a blue-collar city and we want to make them proud of how we compete.”
It’s just one game into the Jans tenure, but if the first one was any indication, Jans’ Bulldogs are blue-collar indeed.
State used a workman like effort and put together a dominant second half to top Texas A&M-Corpus Christi 63-44 Monday night at Humphrey Coliseum to begin the Jans era. After falling down by as many as 12 points in the first half, MSU rallied, got back in the game and then pulled away behind Tolu Smith’s 19 points and 11 rebounds as well as the relentless energy Jans demands.
“That’s why we rely on our defense, our rebounding and our energy,” Jans said. “Because there will be nights we’ll struggle. Everyone in the country will. When we do that, we have to rely on our defense to get us through the rough patches. That’s what we did, especially in the second half.”
The Bulldogs limited the Islanders to just 14 points and 21 percent shooting as a team over the contest’s final 20 minutes. This coming after a first half where the Dawgs were in danger of having their opening night spoiled.
Texas A&M-Corpus Christi was forcing turnovers and scoring in transition early and often to put State in a 20-8 hole less than 10 minutes into the game. State’s DJ Jeffries admitted the first-game bright lights had the butterflies fluttering for the Bulldogs.
“It’s a whole new era,” Jeffries said. “We didn’t know what to expect. Everyone was a little nervous and wanted to make an impression and show everyone they need to come watch us play.”
When the Bulldog nerves settled though…
“We did a good job of making people want to come back,” Jeffries said.
It was Jeffries who was largely responsible for the restoring order. After MSU closed the first half on a 17-10 run, Jeffries’ 3-pointer just 13 seconds after the intermission sent a resounding message the game’s last stanza would belong to the Bulldogs.
“I know I took a sigh of relief and I felt like the whole arena did,” Jans said of Jeffries’ big shot. “We were down five, but it actually felt bigger than that to me, just because I didn’t feel like we’d played very well, especially on the offensive end.”
Soon, the Bulldogs were rolling. With 16:07 left, Smith gave the Dawgs their first lead all night with a free throw that made it 35-34. MSU never trailed again.
Smith scored 11 of his 19 points in the second half on the way to his 14th career double-double. But more than that, he served as a soothing presence for all in Maroon and White.
“I can’t have jitters,” Smith said. “I’ve got to be the guy people depend on and the anchor people need on the team. Whatever it takes to get the win, I’m willing to do.”
The big man’s teammates certainly seemed inspired by his efforts. MSU settled in. After 10 first-half turnovers, the Dawgs nearly cut that total in half in the last period with just six.
“Once we stopped turning the ball over and stopped letting them get back in transition, it was easy,” Jeffries said.
Without as many transition buckets, the Islanders made just six of their final 28 shot attempts.
“I got a feeling this year, that’s what we’re going to hang our hats on is defense, grinding it out and forcing our will on other people,” Cameron Matthews said after finishing with a team-best five blocks and tying for the team lead with three steals.
When the final buzzer sounded, the Bulldogs could enjoy a comfortable margin of victory. The journey to it might not have been a smooth one – particularly early on – but the effort behind it sure proved to be effective. Not to mention, Jans believes it foreshadows even better things to come.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” Jans said. “Fortunately for us, we’re not close to where we could be and we still won by 19. That’s a good sign for an opener.”
It was a good sign and a good start. Jans’ blue-collar Bulldogs are here, and they’re off and running.
“It’s always good to win the first one,” Matthews said. “It’s a good stepping stone to start the year off right.”