New York • Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak didn’t just leave it at his team had “plenty” to play for when the Utes gathered for breakfast here Tuesday morning. He started listing people, ideas, reasons to want to get to the NIT championship game as part of his theme “play for more.”
Krystkowiak mentioned an email exchange with former Utah All-American Arnie Ferrin, who’s name just happens to be outside the office Krystkowiak currently occupies. Ferrin played on the program’s last NIT championship team in 1947.
Krystkowiak also mentioned sophomore center Jayce Johnson, who couldn’t play on Tuesday due to an ankle injury, but might be available on Thursday. And Krystkowiak reminded his players about athletic director Chris Hill, a native of nearby New Jersey, who after 31 years leading the Utah program, announced his intentions to retire earlier this week.
Come Thursday morning, Krystkowiak might not have to say very much. The Utes (23-11) will end their season playing against Penn State (25-13) at 5 p.m. MT for the NIT title in Madison Square Garden. The Utah coach need do nothing more than point to seniors like point guard Justin Bibbins, forward David Collette, forward Tyler Rawson and wing Gabe Bealer.
“It means the world to us,” Bibbins said following a pivotal 19-point performance on Tuesday night. “We’re seniors, this is our last go-around playing with the guys, and you know, I love this team. I keep wanting to play with them every day. And to extend the game one more day and to do shoot-around and another game with them, this just means the world to us.”
Collette left his wife and their newborn baby boy behind just a day after he became a father, and he pledged to Utes fans to bring a trophy back. He had never been to New York prior to this week, and he knows this is where his collegiate career will end.
“[I’m] just excited, couldn’t go out any better way, you know,” Collette said. “Disappointed, obviously. Wanted to make it to the NCAA Tournament. But making it to the NIT Championship, I’ll take that any day.”
The Utes last played in a NIT championship game in 1974, where they lost to Purdue by six points. Until this week, the program hadn’t even reached the semifinals since 1992. The Utes have made no secret that their goal was the NCAA Tournament, but they were all-in once they got over the initial disappointment of missing out, overcoming a lackluster start in their victorious NIT opener against UC Davis.
The Utes, looked disjointed and out of sync early on Tuesday. The setting may have played a part in those early miscues and what Bibbins and Collette both described as starting off “flat.” Any apprehension or hesitancy figures to disappear on Thursday, when the magnitude of the moment sinks in for the seniors who will play their final game.
“It’s definitely leaving everything on the line,” Rawson said of the team’s championship game approach. “We had the nerves a little bit [Tuesday], but I think those nerves will be gone. Once that ball gets tossed up, now it’s just trying to play as hard as you can and compete the hardest you can because you know there’s no tomorrow.”
Penn State’s starting lineup on Tuesday night featured one senior a junior, two sophomores and a freshman. Their motivation is as much about building for the future as it is about how they send off their two seniors who play regularly.
“I know there’s four seniors on Utah, but we have two that play critical minutes for us, and we need to remember who we’re playing for and what it’s about,” Penn State coach Pat Chambers said. “As far as the young guys, the sophomores, these experiences are critical in our development.
“These guys are really beginning to grow and find success and winning really helps because prior to that, we only won 15 games last year,” he added. “So for them to be at 25, second-most wins in the history of Penn State basketball, which is 122-year history, is terrific. So this has got to be a springboard for us.”
UTAH VS. PENN STATE
Tipoff • Thursday, 5 p.m. MT
TV • ESPN2
Radio • 700 AM
Records • Utah 23-11, Penn State 25-13
Series history • Penn State leads 1-0
About the Nittany Lions • Penn State advanced to the NIT championship game with a 75-60 over Mississippi State on Tuesday night.Senior guard Shep Garner broke the program’s career record for3-pointers. Garner enters the championship game shooting 43.5 percent on3-pointers. … Sophomore point guard Tony Carr, a 6-foot-5 Philadelphia native, leads Penn State in scoring (19.7 points per game) and assists(4.8 per game) while also averaging 4.8 rebounds per game. … Sophomore forward Lamar Stevens has averaged 15.2 points and 6.1 rebounds per game while starting all 38 games for Penn State. He had 17 points, eight rebounds and six assists on Tuesday night.
About the Utes • Utah trailed by 10 points in the first quarter, but rallied to advance to the championship game with a 69-64 win over Western Kentucky inTuesday’s semifinal. Justin Bibbins scored 12 of his team-high 19 points at the free throw line, and Sedrick Barefield (14 points), David Collette (13 points) and Tyler Rawson (12 points) were all also in double-figures for scoring. … Bibbins enters the championship game leading the team in scoring (14.7 ppg), assists (4.7 per game) and has shot 44.3 percent from 3-point range. … Barefield has averaged 14.5points per game during the NIT, and he has shot 48 percent from the field and 43 percent on 3-pointers.