There's picking up where you left off and then there's what Mississippi State's D.J. Stewart did on Saturday.
Two days after a game-winning 3-pointer, Stewart made his first five shots and scored 19 of his 23 points in the first half as Mississippi State cruised to an 84-62 win over Louisiana Tech in the NIT semifinals. The victory punches MSU's ticket to the school's first-ever appearance in the NIT championship game.
Setting the tone for it was Stewart.
“That really gave us a lift (and) gave our guys a lot of confidence,” Mississippi State head coach Ben Howland said of Stewart's hot start.
Behind Stewart's early barrage, MSU never trailed in the game. State led 41-29 at halftime and midway through the second half, used an 11-0 run to stretch a nine-point lead out to 20. The maroon-and-white clad Bulldogs led by double figures the rest of the way.
While Stewart was MSU's star in the first half, it was Iverson Molinar stealing the show in the final 20 minutes to help State put the game away. Molinar finished the game with a team-best 25 points, 20 of them coming in the second half.
"It is just who has the hot hand," Molinar said. "In the second half we had to push more after DJ had that hot first half. It feels like it is just whoever has the hot hand and we get them the ball."
Freshman Derek Fountain had a pretty hot hand himself. He scored 15 points and brought down six rebounds to help MSU absorb the blow of having a second-straight game without the services of starting forward Tolu Smith. Smith has been out due to COVID-19 contact tracing, though Howland noted postgame that Smith has tested negative for the coronavirus multiple times.
"It's tough on Tolu and he is fine," Howland said. "There's nothing wrong with him and he is caught up in protocol, something we have no control over. He has tested negative (for COVID-19) four times in a row. But I was proud of the guys for stepping up."
Abdul Ado also had a strong game to aid State's cause. The senior center scored eight points and tallied seven rebounds to help push MSU into Sunday's title game.
Mississippi State is now set to face off against Memphis for the championship. Tip-off time is set for 11 a.m. central on Sunday.
“The beauty is that you get to keep playing," Howland said. "It is going to be fun for our team to play for a championship."
(CLICK HERE TO WATCH HOWLAND'S FULL POSTGAME PRESS CONFERENCE. MOLINAR'S FULL POSTGAME PRESS CONFERENCE IS AT THE TOP OF THIS PAGE.)