Utes coach Larry Krystkowiak got tired of watching his team get pushed around, and he wanted his team to get tired of it, too. It took two technical fouls, one tossed chair and Krystkowiak’s first ejection of the season to get his team to wake up.
Utah trailed for the first three quarters and were down by 11 points with 3:29 remaining in the first half to Big West regular-season champion UC Davis before rallying for a 69-59 win in their NIT opener on Wednesday night at the Huntsman Center.
The Utes will host LSU, which defeated Louisiana-Lafayette on Wednesday night, on Monday at 7 p.m. in the second round.
“I think they just punched us in the mouth, to be honest,” said Utes associate head coach Tommy Connor, who handled the postgame news conference. “I think that Coach felt it, our team felt it, and he reacted. That helped turn us around a little bit.
“The start of the game, we told them it’s going to be on right at the start. Sure enough it was. We did a great job responding.”
Krystkowiak poked his head into the interview room at the end before going to speak to his team. When asked who would coach on Monday, Krystkowiak quipped “we’ll see” and joked it would depend on the officiating.
Senior guard Justin Bibbins scored 15 of his game-high 21 points in the second half, while freshman Donnie Tillman and senior Tyler Rawson added 11 points apiece. Tillman scored six points in the fourth quarter as the Utes finally took the lead. Rawson also pulled down a game-high nine rebounds.
“When something like that happens, you can tell your coach is fighting for you,” Bibbins said of the ejection. “We came in and laid an egg the first 10 minutes. Seeing his passion, especially, fired us up.”
Krystkowiak erupted with 5:07 left in the first half and the Utes down 22-17 after an out of bounds call went against the Utes. With play stopped and as the team shifted to the end of the court in front of the Utes bench, Krystkowiak made sure his voice was heard.
Krystkowiak came out onto the court yelling and pointing at the official who’d made the call. His staff had to hold him back, but Krystkowiak kept pushing to make sure his voice had been heard, even after he was assessed the first technical. After the second technical and ejection, Krystkowiak knocked over one of the folding chairs on the bench area as the crowd applauded on his way to the locker room.
Whether spurred on by Krystkowiak’s outburst or not, the Utes cut the deficit to four points at halftime thanks to back-to-back 3-pointers by Gabe Bealer and another by Sedrick Barefield in the final minute. The Utes missed their first nine 3-pointers and their first made 3 didn’t come until 2:34 remained in the half.
Tillman, who scored eight of his 11 points in the second half, said when Krystkowiak stormed onto the court that he was thinking, “I hope he don’t hurt nobody. You know, he was just trying to get us fired up. He told me to sub in right there. He said, ’Donnie, play your [butt] off. I just listened to him.”
The Utes held the Aggies to 15 third-quarter points to pull within 48-47 headed into the fourth quarter. Tillman’s layup to start the quarter gave the Utes their first lead and he followed with an emphatic slam a few moments later as the Utes didn’t trail again as Bibbins scored eight points in the fourth to close out the win.