New York • No. It wasn’t the big tournament and it wasn’t the national title on the line. But you still will have an uphill battle if you want to argue with Utes coach Larry Krystkowiak or his team that this postseason was meaningless or something to be disregarded.
The Utes’ season concluded with an 82-66 loss to Penn State at Madison Square Garden in front of the largest NIT Championship game crowd since 2005. Penn State beat the Utes at their own game. The Utes scored fewer than 70 points, and Penn State shared the ball and seemed to always make the right pass as evident by their 22 assists on 32 baskets.
“It was a real dang good year, and nobody’s going to take the fact away that we got on a nice roll,” Krystkowiak said. “I think as a coach you always want to be playing your best basketball at the right time of year. I think our team improved throughout the course of the year. I think we were playing real well going down the stretch. We just ran into a really good team. Could have been one of those Cinderella finishes, but it wasn’t.”
The Utes went 10-3, including the end of the regular season as well as the Pac-12 tournament and NIT, in their final 13 games and fell one game short of winning the program’s first NIT title since 1947.
While players have acknowledged the disappointment of bowing out of the Pac-12 Tournament early and missing the NCAA Tournament each of the past two seasons, they rallied around the idea of advancing to New York City and playing for a championship.
“I think it’s a great feeling because there’s only a few teams playing at this time of year, no matter if you’re in the NCAA Tournament or the NIT,” junior guard Sedrick Barefield said. “Playing with this group of guys, probably the most fun I’ve had as being part of a team and a culture. It means something to me, to us, and I’m sure to everyone.”
Senior point guard Justin Bibbins, a graduate transfer from Long Beach State, made a lasting impression in his one season with the Utes. He earned all-conference honors while leading the team statistically and emotionally as well as serving as a coach on the floor.
This postseason only served to strengthen Bibbins’ bond with the program and the teammates, most of whom he didn’t even know until last summer.
“Win or lose, you want to win the game but losing it doesn’t take away from anything,” Bibbins said about the NIT experience. “You know, you get to come to New York with your boys. You’ve been practicing since August, grinding with them, so nothing is going to take that away from you, especially playing this deep in March.”
Krystkowiak described this season as a “great year to be a part of” and claimed “without a doubt” he’d never enjoyed a season more from start to finish. He has lauded throughout the season the chemistry and atmosphere created by this group of players, and he dismissed the opinions of anyone who disparaged the experience of making it to the NIT championship game.
Krystkowiak said earlier this week that he would not trade the experience of advancing to the NIT final for a first-round loss in the NCAA Tournament.
“Looking from outside-in, you’re always kind of watching the NIT, and maybe you think of it as the consolation prize or whatever, but man, when you’re in the middle of it as a competitor and a coach and you’re winning games and you’re in the Garden, and some of the tradition that’s been around here, people on the outside writing articles, have comments, opinions about what’s going on,” Krystkowiak said. “They have no idea how cool this was for us.
“Again, nobody’s going to take it away, and it was an absolute highlight and especially being with this group.”