Utah’s season felt like it had been dealt a final blow two weeks ago in the Pac-12 tournament. The Utes’ NCAA Tournament hopes, which had grown increasingly realistic, all of a sudden popped like a balloon. However, they have managed to let what happened in Las Vegas stay right there.
Utah has continued to make postseason memories, though not in the setting it had initially envisioned, by earning a spot in the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden in New York next week. The program last advanced this far in the NIT in 1992.
“It’s a great feeling just knowing that as a group we accomplished something that’s pretty special,” Utes junior guard Sedrick Barefield said as the team traveled back from California on Thursday. “Obviously, we want to be in the NCAA Tournament, but there’s only a certain amount of teams playing at this time of year and it’s a blessing to be still playing and be able to go to Madison Square Garden — somewhere we all dreamed of playing as a kid.”
The Utes needed a road victory in overtime against one of the most successful programs in the western part of the country, Saint Mary’s, with a ridiculously stellar track record on its home court (18-1 going into Wednesday).
UTAH VS. WESTERN KENTUCKY
When • Tuesday, 5 p.m. MDT
TV • ESPN
Adding a degree of difficulty to the Utes’ thrilling victory, they had to pull off the win with starting forward and all-conference player David Collette sidelined by a back injury, their primary backup Jayce Johnson fouled out in regulation and their leading scorer and playmaker Justin Bibbins struggling offensively (4-of-12 shooting, 1-of-7 on 3-pointers).
Barefield, who’d had his last-second layup attempt blocked to end the team’s Pac-12 tournament run, provided the offensive spark in overtime. He scored nine of his 19 points after the end of regulation, launching an array of long-range jumpers, including a step-back 3-pointer with less than two minutes remaining to seal the victory.
“For me personally, I like taking those shots,” Barefield said. “There was obviously a long stretch where I hadn’t scored, but I still believed in myself and I knew that I was due for some shots to go in. There was not hesitation as far as letting it go — whether it was going to go in or out — I always felt like the shots I was taking were going to go in. I definitely wanted to take those shots.”
The Utes returned to Salt Lake City on Thursday, and they’ll be in town for a few days before joining Western Kentucky, Penn State and Mississippi State as the last four standing in the tournament.
“We’ve kind of taken on Jon Huntsman’s theme that we picked up on over the years, which is the ‘Go big’ theme,” Utes coach Larry Krystkowiak said earlier this week. “That was the top of the board for us — we’ve got to believe. Jon believed he could do a lot of things people said he was crazy about. I believe we can do that [make it to New York]. That’s one of those lifetime memories. I don’t know how many teams remember how the games went in the NIT, but there’s a little bit of oomph to it, certainly, when you can get to the Final Four and you play in Madison Square Garden.”
Krystkowiak gave the Utes another memorable moment in his exuberance following Wednesday night’s win. The university’s social media account posted a video of the 53-year-old Krystkowiak dancing in the locker room with his players after the game. The video has gotten a lot of attention on social media and even made an appearance on ESPN’s SportsCenter.
Barefield said it wasn’t the first time players had seen Krystkowiak cut loose — he’d done so in practice or closed-door private settings before — but Barefield described it as “possibly the coolest thing I’ve seen” taking into consideration the setting and the circumstances.
“We went back to the locker room and obviously we were celebrating because we were going to New York, and then Coach K walked in and he saw us dancing and he just joined in,” Barefield said fighting back laughter. “He started grooving a little bit. That was cool to see our head coach doing that. It definitely made the win that much more special, especially with how it’s blown up on social media.”