Mississippi State did what it could to hand Wednesday’s Fort Myers Tip-Off championship game to the University of Utah, firing up brick after brick at the rim before getting a few shots to drop in the final minutes.

The Utes wouldn’t accept the generosity.

Coach Craig Smith’s crew was nearly as accommodating the day before Thanksgiving by going ice cold in crunch time in the defensive slugfest, and the Bulldogs remained undefeated with a 52-49 win at Suncoast Credit Union Arena.

“Tonight is a tough one (to lose), obviously. Man, our guys really, really competed hard and we gave ourselves every opportunity to win. That second half, we missed so many clean, open looks.” — Utah basketball coach Craig Smith.

Mississippi State, ranked 28th in KenPom.com, improved to 6-0 with the tournament title. Utah dropped to 4-2, and will return to Salt Lake City and host St. Thomas (5-2) on Saturday night in the Huntsman Center wondering what might have been if it had made a few more free throws in crunch time and gotten even average nights from its two top scorers, Gabe Madsen and Branden Carlson.

“Tonight is a tough one (to lose), obviously. Man, our guys really, really competed hard and we gave ourselves every opportunity to win,” Smith told ESPN 700 AM radio. “That second half, we missed so many clean, open looks.”

Utah made just one field goal and missed three key free throws in the final five minutes when the game was there for the taking. Still, the Utes twice had chances to tie it in the final 20 seconds.

Dashawn Davis, who led all scorers with six 3-pointers for 18 points, missed a free throw with 17.2 seconds left, but Madsen missed a 3-pointer seconds later. Then Tolu Smith missed a freebie with 4.6 seconds left, and Utah got a timeout to set up a final play.

However, Rollie Worster fired an airball at the buzzer from well behind the 3-point line, and the Bulldogs ran off with the tournament title.

“That is something we run every day in practice,” Madsen said of the final shot. “We were originally going to let it go and then I think they kinda were sitting back (so the Utes called timeout). We wanted to make sure we got a shot.”

Worster’s hurried shot wasn’t expected to go in, but lot of others were, as Madsen went 2 of 14 from the floor and 2 of 10 from 3-point range. After not scoring in the second half of Monday’s 68-64 win over Georgia Tech, center Branden Carlson stayed cold, going scoreless on 0 of 6 shooting.

“We missed a lot of open looks, me especially,” Madsen said. “I dunno, a lot of open looks, man. You can say what you want, but sometimes the ball just doesn’t go in and yeah, rough night.”

The Utes shot 33% from the field and 21% from deep (4 of 19), which isn’t bad considering the Bulldogs were 17 of 67 (25%) from the field and 9 of 38 from long range. Take away Davis’ 6 of 9 effort with the 3-ball, and Miss State was 3 of 29.

“I thought we executed pretty well defensively,” Smith said. “I mean, you hold a team to 25%, you are going to win that game 95 out of 100 times, I would think.”

3 keys to Utah’s 52-49 loss to Mississippi State
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Utah committed 11 turnovers in the first half when MSU scratched out a 25-21 lead at the break, then did a much better job with the ball in the second half, giving it away only three times after halftime. The Bulldogs had eight steals.

“Turnovers, and then obviously just rebounding (cost Utah),” Madsen said. “And down the stretch, that is what got to us. They got some offensive rebounds and were able to pull it back (and score) and ended up beating us.”

Mississippi State turned 19 offensive rebounds into 16 second-chance points. The key sequence came after Marco Anthony made one of two free throws to give Utah a 45-42 lead with 4:37 left. 

MSU missed three straight 3-pointers, but grabbed offensive rebounds on all three misfires. Then Davis got free for his fifth triple to tie it. After Worster’s shot went in and out, Smith made a jumper that came after, what else, an offensive rebound.

“We knew this was going to be a bloodbath, and physical,” Smith said. “That is what they do. …. We need to play physical and rugged like that. That is probably how we are going to end up playing.”

Ben Carlson and Anthony scored 10 points apiece to lead the Utes, while freshman Keba Keita had another nice night off the bench with four points and seven rebounds.

“Keba Keita I thought was outstanding tonight,” Craig Smith said. “(Tolu) Smith is a load. That guy will be one of the best players, for sure one of the best big men, we will see.”

Utah’s coach also liked what Ben Carlson provided with four rebounds to go with 4 of 6 shooting.

“Ben Carlson has made monster steps from where he was three weeks ago to where he was today,” Smith said. “I thought he was really good tonight.”

Utah got 15 points from its bench, Mississippi State zero. 

A week from Thursday, Utah opens Pac-12 play by hosting undefeated Arizona.

“We will keep climbing,” Smith said. “I am really excited about the future of this team.”