The Utes know who they are and how they need to play to thrive. There’s no reinventing a team identity in March. Either the messages have sunk in by this point or it probably just isn’t ever going to happen.
Utah posted 95 points and enjoyed its most-productive offensive performance of the season Monday to advance to the NIT quarterfinals for the first time since 1992.
Monday night’s drubbing of LSU set up the second-seeded Utes (21-11) on a date with top-seeded Saint Mary’s (30-5) in California at 8 p.m. MT Wednesday. The game will be broadcast nationally on ESPN2, and the winner advances to the tournament semifinals at Madison Square Garden in New York City next week. Saint Mary’s knocked the Utes out of the NIT in the first round in 2014 in a game in Moraga, Calif.
The Utes assuredly would like to duplicate the sort of offensive explosion they unleashed Monday night.
“This is kind of the time of year where it’s kind of like getting through the driver’s training with your own kids — just give them the keys,” Utes coach Larry Krystkowiak said. “There’s coaching to be had, but they’ve heard everything. We’ve learned a lot of lessons. We know what it is that makes us play well. When we share the ball and screen and when we defend and get locked in, good things happen.”
Krystkowiak kept his pregame address to his team Monday night — the 32nd of this season — short and to the point. The gist of his words were play hard and with energy on defense and you’ll have offensive freedom.
“I’ve always said I want our team to be a player-driven team, not a coach-driven team,” Krystkowiak said.
The Utes responded with remarkable scoring balance that included five players registering between 12 and 17 points. They set or tied season highs for scoring, field goals, field goal percentage and 3-point field goal percentage.
“When we focus on defense — and he tells us that — and he gives us a little trust and freedom on the offensive end, we are real free flowing,” junior guard Sedrick Barefield said. “On top of that, we execute and we do what he says. It’s a great combination of both of those things, and I think it frees our minds up a little bit.”
Barefield, who has gone back and forth between the starting lineup and coming off the bench this season as he has adjusted to the presence of Justin Bibbins, scored a team-high 17 points against LSU.
Senior wing Gabe Bealer, who went 5-of-7 shooting, saw his playing time fluctuate during the season. He’s had minimal impact on games at times, and he’s been critical at others. He even admitted early this season to getting himself mentally psyched out at times.
“Coach said he was going to hand over the keys,” Bealer said. “I guess it does feel like we get a little bit more freedom. The leash isn’t as tight I guess, and he lets us make mistakes and make up for them.”
The Utes now must turn their attention to the Gaels, who rank among the nation’s top defensive teams in scoring defense (14th) and 3-point field goal percentage (22nd).
The Utes hosted the Gaels, who’ve won 29 games or more in each of the past three seasons, in a closed-door scrimmage during the preseason. Krystkowiak described the Utes’ performance as 30 minutes of “pretty good basketball” and 10 minutes of “not so good” play leading to a loss.
“They’re a terrific team,” Krystkowiak said. “I would say they’re an NCAA Tournament team and could easily be in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, but that’s not our issue to deal with. They’ve got a lot of pieces and a lot of veteran players and a well-coached team. It’d be kind of interesting how we could return the game to their place and kind of wrap up the entire season that way.”
NO. 2 UTAH AT NO. 1 SAINT MARY’S
Tipoff • 8 p.m. MT Wednesday
TV • ESPN2
Radio • 700 AM
Records • Utah 21-11; Saint Mary’s 30-5
Series history • Utah leads 14-3
About the Utes • Utah advanced to the NIT quarterfinals with a 95-71 drubbing of LSU on Monday night. Sedrick Barefield scored a team-high 17 points and led five Utes with 12 points or more. ... Senior guard Justin Bibbins (14.8 ppg) moved into a tie with Johnnie Bryant for the third-most 3-pointers made in a season. Bibbins has made 89 3-pointers matching Bryant’s total from the 2007-08 season. Jordan Loveridge sits in second place with 90 3-pointers during the 2015-16 season. Bibbins’ 3-point shooting accuracy (45.4 percent) ranks ninth all-time in program history for a single season. … Senior forward David Collette (12.6 ppg) enters Wednesday’s game shooting 64 percent from the field, the fourth-highest single-season shooting percentage in program history.
About the Gaels • Saint Mary’s made program history with its 30th win of the season in an 85-81 victory over Pac-12 member Washington in the second round of the NIT on Monday night. Sophomore guard Jordan Ford led the way with 26 points, while 6-foot-10 redshirt junior forward Evan Fitzner scored 20 points off the bench. … Saint Mary’s 6-11, 255-pound senior center Jock Landale earned the WCC player of the year award and has been named a finalist for the John R. Wooden Award as well as the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award. Landale has averaged 21.3 points and 10.1 rebounds per game. … Senior guard Emmett Naar, a first-team all-conference selection, sits atop the program’s all-time assists list. He led the WCC in assists per game during the regular season (8.1).