JACKSON, MS - December 14, 2022 - Mississippi State Graduate Assistant Carl Hall during the game between the Jackson State Tigers and the Mississippi State Bulldogs at Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson, MS. Photo By Mike Mattina

Chris Jans’ Mississippi State Bulldogs, undefeated and ranked No. 17 in the nation, rolled into Mississippi Coliseum Wednesday night as a whopping 21-point favorite over Jackson State, who had won just once. And if that sounds like a potential snooze fest, just know that it was not.

Rick Cleveland

The Bulldogs were behind with eight minutes to play and had to fight, scratch and persist for a 69-59 victory over the Tigers, who were well-prepared and played their rear ends off.

Two ways to look at this result, depending on your perspective:

  • One, State, now 10-0, took JSU’s best shot but still made all the clutch plays at crunch time to win before an enthused crowd of 3,206 on a rainy night in the Capital City.
  • Two, Jackson State, playing its first game in its home city this season, not only had to battle a more talented team but did so before a highly partisan Mississippi State crowd. Said Mo Williams, the former NBA star and first-year JSU coach: “This was our first game in Jackson, and our fans didn’t show up. If this had been a football game, we’d have had 60,000 people. We’ve been on the road all season and then to come home and not have the support of our fans. I am disappointed. Think what a difference that might have made in a close game.”

To be sure, State’s rally over the last eight minutes was fueled by a loud, pro-MSU crowd that surprised even Jans, who credited his fans for making a difference. “Our fans were awesome,” he said.

The Bulldogs needed all the help they could get. Jackson State, which out-rebounded the Bulldogs 31-24, appeared far better than the 1-9 team they are. That’s because the Tigers are better than that. Their first nine games, all on the road, included games at Michigan, Indiana, TCU and some other tough mid-level Division I foes. The Tigers’ lone victory was at SMU. They are not a terrible team. They will win many games once they begin SWAC play and play half their games at home. Until then, well, they play at Texas Tech Saturday and then at No. 4 Alabama next Tuesday. If that hardly seems fair, well, it’s not.

“We gotta go play the games to make the money,” Williams said. “It’s not an excuse, it’s reality.”

Meanwhile, Jans, who came to Mississippi State from New Mexico State, has something special going. The Bulldogs already claim victories over Utah of the Pac-12, tradition-rich Marquette of the Big East and Minnesota of the Big 10. Jans’ team plays extremely hard and plays defense with purpose.

“They are good, really good,” said WIlliams, the Jackson native who played his college basketball at Alabama and knows a good college team when he sees one. “They are really athletic and they can really get out and run. Our plan was to make it a half-court game and we did for the most part. But they made the big plays down the stretch and that’s what really good teams do.”

State has at least two potential NBA players in 6-foot-11 Tolu Smith and 6-7 D.J. Jeffries, both seniors and both listed as forwards. Smith is the team’s star, averaging 16 points and nine rebounds, while shooting 63% from the floor. You’d love to see the Bulldogs get him the ball more down low in the post where he most effective. He made four of his only five shots against Jackson State, which swarmed him for much of then night. Jeffries, from Olive Branch, was one of the state’s most highly recruited players ever before signing with Memphis out of high school. As a senior, he appears to be playing with more purpose than ever. He led the Bulldogs with 15 points Wednesday night.

The Bulldogs’ best player Wednesday night might have been reserve forward Keyshawn Murphy, a 6-10 redshirt freshman out of Birmingham, who scored 10 points and passed out two assists in just 12 minutes. He has a chance to be special.

For Jackson State, the star was Coltie Young, a left-handed sharpshooter from Starkville, of all places. Young made 7 of 11 3-pointers and topped all scorers with 23 points. He gave his team a chance to win over his hometown team.

For Mississippi State, Wednesday night’s game was a chance to smile and cheer after a three days of mourning the death of beloved football coach Mike Leach. There was a moment of silence, followed by respectful applause, before the opening tip.

Said Jeffries, afterward, “Everybody at Mississippi State, including us, has been grieving. We wanted to do something for them, give them something to cheer.”

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.