It was definitely a dream come true. —Utah forward Tyler Rawson
NEW YORK — Utah is headed to its first NIT championship game since 1974. The Utes advanced to the final with a 69-64 victory over Western Kentucky Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden. They’ll face Penn State in the title game on Thursday (5 p.m., ESPN2).
Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak asked the first question at the postgame press conference, directing his inquiry at senior David Collette.
“How did that feel?” Krystkowiak asked. “How did that feel here in New York?”
Collette responded quickly.
“That’s a great experience,” he said. “That’s awesome. Nothing like it. It’s great.”
Justin Bibbins led a balanced attack as the Utes (23-11) prevailed in a tight battle that featured 13 lead changes and an equal number of ties. Sedrick Barefield finished with 14 points, while Collette and Tyler Rawson added 13 and 12, respectively.
Utah pulled ahead for good when Rawson hit a 3-pointer with 38 seconds to go that made it 66-64. Bibbins took the in-bounds pass, drove to the basket and then threw the ball to Rawson.
“It was definitely a dream come true,” said Rawson, who added that being able to convert on a stage like that is definitely unforgettable.
After Rawson’s shot, the Utes then drew a second charge on the Hilltoppers in the final minute. Bibbins sealed the outcome by hitting two free throws to make it a four-point game with 14.9 seconds remaining.
By game’s end, Western Kentucky missed a 3-point shot. Barefield grabbed the rebound and was fouled. He capped all scoring with a free throw.
Foul shots proved to be pivotal in the semifinal clash. The Utes hit 18 of 23. Bibbins was a perfect 12 of 12.
“I just went to the basics and knocked them down,” he said.
Bibbins made eight free throws in the final 5:10 of play. The score was tied at 51-51 after three quarters. Western Kentucky held four leads in the fourth period.
The Utes, though, persevered and are now one game away from winning the NIT crown — something the program hasn’t done since 1947.
“Give Utah credit. They made the plays in the last minute of the game that you’ve got to make sometimes to win games,” said Western Kentucky coach Rick Stansbury. “And they stepped up and made their free throws and hit the big three to kind of give them a little bit of separation.”
Utah trailed 19-11 after one quarter. The Utes missed their first five shots from the field as Western Kentucky jumped out to an 8-0 lead. The Hilltoppers went on to build a 13-point lead before the Utes closed the gap.
“I just feel like we came out flat with no energy,” Collette said. “So the biggest thing was just getting our guys going.”
Utah took its first lead on a basket by Barefield with exactly four minutes left to play in the second quarter. The shot gave the Utes a 27-25 edge and capped an 11-0 run.
Western Kentucky didn’t score for nearly four minutes before briefly reclaiming the lead. Things were knotted up at 32-32 when the half was complete. Both teams had 21 rebounds over the first two quarters. The Utes, though, were slowed by miscues. Western Kentucky had a 15-2 advantage in points off of turnovers.
Utah reduced the margin to 17-7 and wound up out-rebounding Western Kentucky 38-32.
Krystkowiak acknowledged that it all added up to be real keys in the game, especially on a night when the Utes hit just 5 of 16 shots from 3-point range
Bibbins agreed with the assessment.
“That just shows the maturity of this team, that we can find a different way to win the game and go inside and, you know, hit free throws,” he said. “We’re piecing it together now — and for the final game — and it feels really good.”