NEW ORLEANS — Georgia coach Tubby Smith didn’t get an opportunity to see Mississippi State’s Dontae’ Jones play when their two teams met during the regular season.
Smith probably wished Jones had missed Saturday’s SEC Tournament semifinal at the Louisiana Superdome.
Jones, who sat out the Jan. 31 win over Georgia in Starkville while a question about his grades was being cleared up, hit 9-of-12 from the field and scored 20 points to lead No. 25 Mississippi State to a convincing 86-68 victory over Smith’s Bulldogs.
The victory puts State (21-7) into today’s nationally-televised (CBS) 2 p.m. championship game against top-ranked Kentucky (28-1). It will mark State’s first appearance in the title game since the league’s first tournament in 1933.
Kentucky breezed into the finals with a 95-75 win over Arkansas in Saturday’s other semifinal.
“I thought Dontae’ Jones was the difference in the game today,” Georgia’s Smith said. “We didn’t see him earlier. He’s better than we thought.”
Jones attributed his offensive numbers to his defensive play. He helped hold Georgia’s star, Shandon Anderson, to eight points.
“I just wanted to go out and play the best I could,” he said. “I had a tough assignment guarding Shandon Anderson. I knew if I could contain him, we could beat them.”
Upon hearing Jones’ comment, a smiling State coach Richard Williams added, “You know we’ve made serious progress with Dontae’ if we’ve got him talking defense.”
Jones wasn’t the lone star for State. All-SEC guard Darryl Wilson hit for four 3-pointers and led the way with 21 points. Center Erick Dampier added 17 points, nine rebounds and blocked four shots. Point guard Marcus Bullard contributed 12 points and seven assists. The Bulldogs shot a whopping 60 percent as a team.
For Georgia (19-9) Katu Davis scored 26 points and Carlos Strong added 12.
In the earlier meeting, State and Georgia battled toe-to-toe the entire 40 minutes with the maroon-clad Bulldogs escaping with a 76-73 win.
Saturday, Mississippi State raced to 46-27 halftime lead and never looked back.
The only time Georgia looked to be climbing back into position was at the 8-minute, 15-second mark when Davis sank a 3-pointer to pull his team to within 27-24. From that point, State turned up the defensive and offensive heat and smoked Georgia 19-3 to build its 19-point halftime advantage.
The signature play in State’s run was Jones’ one-hand-behind-the-head dunk at the 4:26 mark.
“I thought in the first half our defensive effort was very good,” State’s Williams said. “It set the tone for the game. It allowed us to get some easy baskets by creating some turnovers.”
State kept the intensity level up to open the second half, charging to a 28-point lead, 60-32, in the first five minutes.
Wilson nailed two 3-pointers in the run and Jones and Dampier had rim-rattling dunks.
“The good first half carried over into the second half,” Williams said. “I’m really proud of our players today. It was an excellent win for us.”