New York • Utes coach Larry Krystkowiak said Monday that it was not about the plays called, but “it’s about players that are making plays.”
Tuesday night against Western Kentucky, three Utah seniors stepped up to make game-changing plays in the final 47.5 seconds to send the Utes to the NIT championship game on Thursday night against Penn State, which beat Mississippi State in the other semifinal game.
A pair of charges drawn by David Collette and Justin Bibbins, and a 3-pointer by Tyler Rawson, cemented a 69-64 Utes win over Western Kentucky in the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden in a game included 13 lead changes.
“It absolutely was a battle,” said Collette, who proclaimed before leaving Salt Lake City that the Utes would bring back a trophy. “That’s the whole goal we’ve had the whole time is come to New York and enjoy ourselves, and we thought the whole time we could win this thing and bring back the trophy. We’re there. We stick by our word this time.”
Down by one point with 46.5 seconds left, Collette stepped in front of Hilltoppers star forward Justin Johnson to draw a charge which sent the Hilltoppers fans and bench into fits. Eight seconds later, Rawson received a kick-out pass from Bibbins and knocked down a go-ahead 3-pointe before the Hilltoppers’ ensuing possession ended with Bibbins drawing a charge.
“The concept in my mind is that there are not little things,” Krystkowiak said of playing in March. “You’ll see a missed block-out, free throw block-out, something that everybody perceives as little — that ends up changing the trajectory of the entire outcome of the game. It could mean a team advancing to the Final Four with this first game.
“So the thing that was cool is we take a lot of pride in taking charges, and it was a team that got a little thirsty to get their feet in the paint at the end, you know. … So that’s one of those things that outside, everyone thinks ‘Well, that was a little thing.’ But that was a key point in the game.”
Rawson’s 3-pointer, one of two he made in the game, changed the outlook of what had been a rough night. He committed five turnovers and had been 1-of-6 from behind the 3-point line when the go-ahead 3 from the wing left his fingertips. He held his shooting form on the shot a beat or two longer than usual as he watched the ball catch the net on the way down.
“Coach called a player for me earlier that I almost air balled,” Rawson said with a chuckle. “When I got the second opportunity, I knew this one was going in and there was no hesitation for that one going up.”
The Utes looked rattled early, whether by the atmosphere, the athleticism of their opponents or an adjustment period as to the level of physical play as Western Kentucky led by as many as 10 points in the first quarter.
After shooting 33 percent and committing five first-quarter turnovers, the Utes attacked the paint more aggressively with Donnie Tillman (eight points, 10 rebounds) and Collette (13 points, seven rebounds) leading the way, which loosened up things for Sedrick Barefield and Bibbins (19 points) on the perimeter. The backcourt duo combined for 13 second-quarter points after going scoreless in the opening frame.
Johnson gave the Utes fits with his ability to score efficiently at all three levels, and he’s physically a bulldozer at 6-foot-7 and 245 pounds. However, the Utes also cut off the paint entry passes to Johnson in the second after his 10-point first quarter. The second-quarter changes allowed the Utes to go into halftime tied at 32 and set the stage for a back-and-forth second half.
PENN STATE 75, MISSISSIPPI STATE 60
Nearly a month after Penn State was bounced out of the Big Ten Tournament, the Nittany Lions are back at Madison Square Garden with another chance to win a championship. Tony Carr scored 21 points, Shep Garner added 18 while breaking theschool record for career 3-pointers and Penn State routed MississippiState 75-60 in the National Invitation Tournament semifinals Tuesdaynight.The fourth-seeded Nittany Lions (25-13) will play No. 2 seed Utah for the title Thursday night.