We’ve been pumping him up and trying to get him to play with more confidence and enthusiasm. —Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak on Sedrick Barefield
MORAGA, Calif. — During a timeout with four minutes remaining in Wednesday’s NIT quarterfinal game at Saint Mary’s, Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak had a message for his team.
“This has been such a fun year and if it ends let this team beat us,” Krystkowiak recalled. “Let’s have them beat us rather than us beat ourself. I saw some guys jump up off the bench with a pretty determined look and some guys stepped up and made some great plays.”
The Utes responded with a game-ending rush to prevail 67-58 in overtime, earning a trip to New York for the NIT semifinals. They face Western Kentucky (27-10) Tuesday (5 p.m., ESPN) at Madison Square Garden. Penn State (24-13) and Mississippi State (25-11) meet in the other semifinal.
“As a kid you dream about playing there and I’m just happy to do it with this group of guys,” said Utah guard Sedrick Barefield, who hit three 3-pointers in the final 3:38 to seal the deal for the Utes. “This is a great group of guys.”
Following an exchange of 3-pointers to open overtime, Utah pulled away with a 10-1 run to pull off the upset. Barefield wound up with a game-high 19 points to lead the Utes (22-11).
“Coach was running high ball screens for me and he expressed his belief in me throughout the game,” Barefield said. “I believe in myself to take those shots, man, and they went in.”
They were absolutely necessary on a night when the Utes were outrebounded 40-26. Adding to the degree of difficulty was losing forward David Collette to a back injury after the first half and later having backup Jayce Johnson foul out.
Krystkowiak acknowledged that it was problematic considering the struggles with rebounding. However, he noted that forwards Tyler Rawson and Donnie Tillman did a good job “weathering the storm” for Utah.
“It’s just ‘next man up.’ We know we have a great group of guys,” said Rawson, who finished with 17 points and seven rebounds. “We’ve got a deep group of guys that can come in and play and contribute.”
When it comes to success in March, Krystkowiak noted that a lot of it is about having a backcourt that makes plays. He credited Justin Bibbins (10 points) and Barefield for stepping up in that regard. Barefield, in particular, came up real big. He and Rawson were both 5 of 7 from 3-point range. In overtime, Barefield’s hot hand proved decisive.
“We’ve been pumping him up and trying to get him to play with more confidence and enthusiasm. I knew we couldn’t get to New York without him,” Krystkowiak said. “We put him in the starting lineup two games ago and had a little individual meeting with him. I’m hard on him and he’s got to put that outside the picture.
“We’re patting him on the back and kind of gave him the keys — as we’ve talked about — giving him the keys to the car to make some plays for us down the stretch,” Krystkowiak added.
It paid off. The Utes are now heading to their first NIT semifinal since 1992.
“To come in here and put it together means a great deal,” Krystkowiak said. "We didn’t want the season to end. So we’re fortunate to get a chance to go to Madison Square Garden.”