New York • The Utes had proved resilient and unrelenting before, but too many things went wrong on Thursday night to overcome.
Utah pulled within two points early in the third, but ended up getting overwhelmed by an athletic Penn State squad as the Utes’ season ended with an 82-66 loss in the NIT championship game on Thursday night.
With each momentum-building play, the heavily pro-Penn State crowd of 11,175 got louder as Nittany Lions football coach James Franklin and former rapper and reality TV star Flavor Flav showed up on the video board to encourage even louder cheers.
The Nittany Lions shot 55 percent from the field and scored the most points the Utes had given up since they allowed 84 to USC on Jan. 14.
“I’ve said all along that defense wins championships,” Utes coach Larry Krystkowiak said. “It’s been a long time since we let a team shoot 50 percent from the field. We led the Pac-12 in defensive field goal percentage. We did a really good job with game plan and preparing our guys, and our guys did a nice job of getting stops. … Plain and simple, they had guys that stepped up and made plays and when you’re taking the ball out of the net and you’re not scoring at the same clip — you can do the math. That becomes a run.”
Sedrick Barefield carried the bulk of the offense with a 22-point performance that included six 3-pointers. Senior guard Justin Bibbins finished the night with 15 points, four assists and three turnovers. Barefield and Bibbins were named to the NIT All-Tournament team, while Penn State’s Lamar Stevens earned Most Outstanding Player honors after a 28-point performance.
Senior center David Collette, Utah’s top player, played a limited role for most of the game. Collette went down after a scramble for a rebound and stayed flat on the floor with 7:15 left in the second quarter. He didn’t appear to be alert initially, and it wasn’t clear if he had collided with another player or been hit in the head.
Krysktowiak said he’d been “whacked” pretty good, hurt his neck and got tested for a concussion. Collette moved gingerly when he was helped to the locker room and returned in the second half for a brief, ineffective stint.
In Collette’s absence, the Utes relied on sophomore Jayce Johnson, who missed the semifinal win over Western Kentucky with an ankle injury. Johnson finished with eight points and four rebounds.
For Gabe Bealer, Tyler Rawson, Bibbins and Collette, Thursday was the end of their collegiate careers.
“It hit me, walking in the tunnel with Sedrick,” Bibbins said. “Knowing it’s your last game, your last time on the court – especially with this team because we love playing with each other. It’s just the next chapter, though. One chapter ends, another one opens. I’m excited for the future, but I’m always going to look at this team as family.”
Utah started strongly, holding a 20-14 lead late in the first quarter before the Nittany Lions closed it on a 7-0 run. Penn State began to take control at that point, and held the Utes to 14 points in the second quarter — with Barefield, who scored 11 in the first quarter, held to three in the second. Barefield finished as Utah’s leading scorer with 22 points.
The Utes went into the break down 39-34 without looking particularly sharp. It cut the deficit down to 43-41 early in the third quarter, then a 10-2 run by the Nittany Lions extended their lead back into double-digits.
Each time Utah tried to make a mini-run, Penn State responded. With less than two minutes left in the third after Bibbins missed a floater that would have cut the deficit to nine, Penn State rebounded the errant shot and missed a 3-pointer. But sophomore guard Tony Carr grabbed the offensive rebound, drew a foul and finished through contact over Bibbins to give his squad a 14-point lead after the old-fashioned 3-point play.
The Nittany Lions maintained a double-digit cushion from throughout the rest of the game, extending it to as much as 20 points. For one of the few times this season, Bibbins seemed to be bothered by the length of the opposing squad, which started three guards standing 6-foot-2 or taller to get physical with the Utes’ 5-8 general.
“They capitalized,” said Bibbins, who finished with 15 points. “They got a lot of the 50-50 balls and scored off of them. You can’t do that when you’re basically playing an away game, because the fans get going and then that amps them up more.”