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Adam Fondren, Deseret News
Utah Utes forward Tyler Rawson (21) yells in celebration after the University of Utah Running Utes defeated the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers in the semifinal round of the 2018 NIT in Madison Square Garden in New York City on
It means the world to us. We’re seniors. This is our last go-around playing with the guys. —Utah guard Justin Bibbins

NEW YORK — An NIT championship would be especially meaningful to Utah seniors Gabe Bealer, Justin Bibbins, David Collette and Tyler Rawson.

“It means the world to us,” Bibbins said. “We’re seniors. This is our last go-around playing with the guys.”

Although the Utes were disappointed not to make the NCAA Tournament, their NIT run has overshadowed it. They face Penn State for the championship Thursday (5 p.m., ESPN2) at Madison Square Garden.

Collette expressed excitement, given the circumstances.

“Couldn’t go out any better way,” he said. “Disappointed, obviously, wanted to make it to the NCAA Tournament. But making it to the NIT championship, I’ll take that any day.”

Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak put it in perspective after Tuesday’s 69-64 semifinal win over Western Kentucky.

“There’s two teams (NCAA, NIT champions) that end their season on a note that they are really happy about,” he said. “… I consider this tournament one of extreme value and to be able to go on a little streak at the end of the season would be special for us. So that’s what we’re shooting for.”

BUSY DADDY: It’s been a whirlwind of sorts for Collette. He became a father for the first time on Friday and left for New York with the team on Saturday.

“It’s not easy being away, but it’s nice to know that win or lose tomorrow it’s over and I can go enjoy the time with my family,” said Collette, who added that the lengthy basketball season hasn’t been a grind. “Overall it’s been a heck of a lot of fun.”

MAKING THEM: Bibbins was 12 for 12 from the line as Utah capitalized on that aspect of the game against Western Kentucky. The Utes hit 18 of 23 free throws in the semifinal victory.

“I don’t think there’s a college team — I may be wrong — that shoots more free throws in practice,” Krystkowiak said. “We have fun little competitive games with our teams and we talk about how we wanted to lead the Pac-12 in free-throw shooting.”

At .759, the Utes were a close third this season — behind Oregon (.763) and Arizona (.760).

Krystkowiak emphasized the importance of practice and finding a rhythm.

“We’ve got some guys that shoot a high percentage of free throws,” he said.

Had Bibbins not come through like he did on Tuesday, Krystkowiak continued, things may have turned out differently.

“We’re not sitting here at the podium,” he said. “We’re in consoling each other.”

Email: dirk@deseretnews.com

Twitter: @DirkFacer