This is one school record that future members of the Utah Utes would rather not break.
Playing in the second round of an NIT that breaks games into quarters, the Utes scored 30 points in the first 10 minutes Monday night vs. LSU.
So it became clear: If the Utes were relegated to this event, they were going to maximize the opportunity. That’s the attitude they displayed in a 95-71 victory at the Huntsman Center, a performance highlighted by Utah’s biggest point total of the season.
Playing in the NIT’s experimental quarter system and having a chance to top that 30-point record won’t be among the program’s goals in the coming years. Even so, the current Utes have made the NIT worth their effort.
Sometime between coach Larry Krystkowiak’s second-quarter tirade last week against UC Davis and the start of Monday’s game, the Utes got motivated.
Utah took a 33-11 lead early in the second quarter. Starting when Krystkowiak retreated to his office after being ejected Wednesday, the Utes outscored the Aggies and Tigers by a total of 83-42 in less than 40 minutes of basketball.
That’s how emotion and momentum ebb and flow in the NIT. This year’s tournament largely has gone according to seeding, which is unusual. The NIT typically features some upsets, because favored teams often are disappointed about not being in the NCAA Tournament — and they play that way.
In LSU’s case, having something of a rivalry game with the neighboring University of Louisiana in the first round last week probably played into the Tigers’ flat performance Monday. In contrast, the Utes (21-11) appeared fresh, sharp and driven to go places in this tournament. By beating Saint Mary’s in the quarterfinals, they would move on to New York.
“Our guys were ready to go from the get-go,” Krystkowiak said.
After the initial letdown of playing in the NIT and starting slowly in a 69-59 defeat of UC Davis, the Utes had four days to “regather your pride,” Krystkowiak said. And this showing was something to be proud of, with the five starters scoring in double figures.
The leader was junior guard Sedrick Barefield with 17 points. Justin Bibbins (16), Gabe Bealer (13), Tyler Rawson (12) and David Collette (12) are seniors. The reserves added 25 points. So pick your angle: Either the Utes are determined to use the NIT as a springboard into next season, or they just want to enable the seniors to play as long as possible. Or both, judging by the way they performed Monday.
“That was really fun,” Barefield said.
Barefield didn’t play along completely with the idea that the Utes were more motivated against LSU than they were against UC Davis, saying, “We wanted to win both games.” Yet he acknowledged there was something different about the way the Utes played from the start Monday.
And even with a crowd that numbered only 5,528 — during spring break on campus, and with season tickets not applicable — the atmosphere was lively by NIT standards. “Great energy in the building,” Krystkowiak said, and Utah responded well.
The Utes made 12 of their first 15 shots from the field with Bibbins leading the charge, and they led 30-11 after one quarter and 47-30 at halftime. It was that close only because the Tigers (18-15) scored the last eight points of the half in a stretch that disappointed Krystkowiak.
Otherwise, not much could anger him Monday. The Utes played solid defense and topped the 91 points they scored against Mississippi Valley State in the second game of the season. Utah went 14 of 27 from 3-point range, even with the line moved back to the international distance (shorter than the NBA, though) in the NIT.
The Utes shot 57.9 percent overall and treated a Southeastern Conference opponent basically the same way as they dealt with the Delta Devils, with close to a full, 40-minute effort. One of the night’s most most memorable sequences came midway through the fourth quarter, when Donnie Tillman blocked an LSU shot, rebounded the ball and started a fast break that ended with Bibbins passing to Barefield for a 3-pointer. The fans loved it, with the Utes leading by 24 points.
The starters’ work was basically over at that point, but they’ll be playing more basketball this week. The Utes made sure of that Monday, from the start.