This is what we’ve worked on since August when we went to Spain. It's all coming together at the right time, and we’re happy. —Utah guard Justin Bibbins
NEW YORK — Tyler Rawson is in the Big Apple for the first time. That’s not to say, however, that the University of Utah senior hasn’t been a few other cool places in his basketball career.
Since graduating from American Fork High School, Rawson played a season at Southern Utah before helping Salt Lake Community College win a national championship. Then came his current stint with the Utes, complete with a European tour the team took last summer.
On Tuesday, Rawson is adding Madison Square Garden to the list of venues he’s visited. The forward played a pivotal role in making the trip possible.
“It’s a storybook ending for sure,” Rawson said.
In last week’s 67-58 overtime win at Saint Mary’s, Rawson scored 17 points and grabbed a team-high seven rebounds. He helped keep Jock Landale of the Gaels in check down the stretch. Rawson had a lot of responsibilities after David Collette was sidelined with a bad back at halftime and reserve Jayce Johnson fouled out.
Rawson explained that Utah’s “next man up mentality” led to him playing the five and being the man in the middle when the game was ultimately decided.
“I was just ready to play and give it the best I could, and luckily shots were falling for me,” he said. “The guards did a good job of finding me and then we had a good double-team on Landale that was really key for our success.”
So, too, obviously was the hot shooting of teammate Sedrick Barefield. The junior scored a game-high 19 points.
No matter what it was, Barefield said, the shorthanded Utes found a way to get it done.
Senior guard Justin Bibbins said there were a lot of contributions.
“This is what we’ve worked on since August when we went to Spain,” he said of Utah’s successful blend of freedom on offense and locking down on defense. “It’s all coming together at the right time, and we’re happy.”
Rawson, in particular, has been quite consistent in Utah’s NIT run. In victories against UC Davis, LSU and Saint Mary’s, he’s averaging 13.3 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists.
“The chemistry we have is great and we love playing with each other,” said Rawson, who mentioned that it started on the trip to Barcelona and Paris when the team focused more on bonding than basketball. “It’s definitely a fun group to be with.”
Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak used an adage about a wolf to describe the team. The strength, he explained, is the pack.
“We depend on each other and that’s gotten pretty contagious,” he said, adding that it’s a squad that is a lot of fun to coach.
Krystkowiak said the culture involves buying into something that’s bigger than just yourself. The Utes have good guys, he continued, that care about one another.
Rawson, who averages 10.8 points and a team-high 6.9 rebounds on the season, is one of the guys setting the tone. Krystkowiak describes Rawson as a player everyone wants to play with, he makes those around him better.
“He’s been a warrior. I think he’s missed one practice (and) played one game with the flu,” said Krystkowiak, who noted that Rawson does a lot of things — passes, defends and shoots. “I know he’s one of the seniors on our squad that’s got a little sensed of urgency and knows it’s all coming to an end. He’s providing us a great lift.”
Madison Square Garden — New York
UTAH (22-11) vs. Western Kentucky (27-1
Tuesday, 5 p.m.
Radio: ESPN 700AM
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