KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Yves Pons scored 13 points and No. 18 Tennessee overcame a miserable shooting night to beat Mississippi State 56-53 Tuesday night.
Pons was a critical force in the first half for the Vols. In the final 2:30 of the game, it was freshman Keon Johnson who scored four of his eight points, while taking an important charging foul, to seal the victory for Tennessee (11-3, 5-3 Southeastern Conference).
While the Vols shot 37% from the field, the Bulldogs (9-8, 4-5) managed just 33%.
Mississippi State was led by Iverson Molinar with 16 points and D.J. Stewart with 11. Abdul Ado had 12 rebounds and Quinten Post pulled down 10 as the Bulldogs dominated the boards, 42-30.
After leading by three at halftime, Tennessee struggled to weather Mississippi State’s second half rally. Midway through the second half, the Bulldogs went ahead on an inside basket from Ado, 41-38. The lead didn’t last long as Pons answered with a pair of baskets.
Tennessee’s 26-23 halftime lead was the product of an early spurt by the Vols.
Eight minutes into the game, Mississippi State had scored just four points. Pons had five points and Tennessee gained a 15-4 advantage.
Then, in the final 10 minutes of the first half, the Vols managed just two field goals.
Stewart led the Bulldogs’ recovery, scoring nine points. Mississippi State tied the game at 20 with just over 5 minutes to play when Abdul Ado scored from down low.
Three free throws by Tennessee freshman Jaden Springer, who was back after missing the last two games with an ankle injury, then a 3-pointer by Santiago Vescovi gave the Vols some breathing room.
Mississippi State: Quality SEC victories over Missouri and Florida have helped the Bulldogs with credibility around the league. How that plays out in the homestretch of the regular season will be interesting.
Tennessee: Finding a way to stop the bleeding and finding the swagger they had earlier in the season is paramount for the Vols. Getting freshman Jaden Springer (ankle) healthy and back in the lineup will go a long way toward doing that.
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs will leave the grind of the conference campaign to be part of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. They will entertain Iowa State Saturday.
Tennessee: Two weeks ago, it would have been a Top 10 matchup between the Vols and Kansas. However, Tennessee suffered a couple setbacks and the Jayhawks have lost three in a row, taking the luster off Saturday’s game in Knoxville.