They’re a good team. They made plays. We missed shots. —Utah guard Justin Bibbins
NEW YORK — Well, that escalated quickly. Or did it?
Whatever the case may be, Utah’s bid for its first NIT championship since 1947 was denied — decisively — by Penn State. The Nittany Lions overpowered the Utes 82-66 in the finals Thursday night at Madison Square Garden
“It doesn’t just happen. It’s not like flipping a switch on,” said Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak, who noted that it’s a matter of allowing two points and then adding another two and so on. “For us, in that case, it was all about defense.”
Penn State forward Lamar Stevens, who was named the NIT’s Most Outstanding Player, finished with a game-high 28 points. He was 11 of 15 from the field. Guard Josh Reaves made 8 of 13 shots en route to scoring 18 points. Point guard Tony Carr had 15 and a near triple-double with 14 assists and nine rebounds.
“I’ve said all along that defense wins championships,” Krystkowiak said. “It’s been a long time since we’ve let a team shoot 50 percent from the field.”
The Nittany Lions (25-13) were 32 of 58 from the field (55.2 percent). They outrebounded the Utes (23-12) by a 34-27 margin and wound up with a 10-2 edge in second-chance points.
“They’re a good team. They made plays,” said Utah senior Justin Bibbins. “We missed shots.”
Utah ended up 25 of 58 from the field (43.1 percent). The bright spot was Sedrick Barefield. The junior hit six 3-pointers and netted a team-high 22 points. Bibbins and Tyler Rawson, who finished with 15 and 11 respectively, were the other Utes to score in double-figures.
Barefield’s first three shots from 3-point range helped Utah jump out to a 20-14 lead. The Utes, however, saw their advantage slip away over the final two minutes of the opening quarter. They missed five straight from the field and were outscored 7-0 over the stretch. The drought extended into the second quarter. Utah’s first three shots missed the mark while Penn State upped its edge to 24-20. A 3-point play by Rawson provided the breakthrough for the Utes and closed the gap to one with 7:41 left to play in the half.
The Nittany Lions roared back with a 13-4 run to increase their lead to 37-27. The Utes managed to cut it to 39-34 by halftime.
Barefield made all five shots he attempted, including four 3-pointers, to lead with 14 points at the break. Senior forward David Collette got hit going after a rebound in the second quarter and did not return until approximately 3½ minutes were gone in the third. He played briefly before returning to the bench for the remainder of the game.
Krystkowiak said Collette hurt his neck.
“They were fearful initially of a concussion and he passed all that,” said Krystkowiak, explaining that Collette didn’t quite look like he had it after coming back.
For the sake of his health and the betterment of the team, Krystkowiak said the decision was made to go with Jayce Johnson, who was giving the Utes good minutes.
“We’ve had a hard time staying healthy at various points with different things,” Krystkowiak said. “But no excuses. It was just having a man down was a little bit difficult, especially with the physical nature of the game.”
An early 7-2 spurt in the third quarter — fueled by five points from Bibbins — moved Utah to within 43-41.
Then came the real knockout blow. Penn State outscored Utah 20-7 over the final 7:12 of the quarter to pull away — leaving no doubt this time around, much to the delight of the supportive crowd that made the journey to New York.
“They got a lot of those 50/50 balls and scored off of them,” Bibbins said. “(You) can’t do that when you’re basically playing an away game because the fans get going.”
Ultimately, Bibbins blamed it on turnovers. The Utes had seven in the second half after turning it over just twice in the first half.
Leading 63-48 after three quarters, the Nittany Lions cruised to victory. They were never seriously challenged in the final period — upping their advantage to 20 at one point.
“We wanted to take away threes and make sure we limit them to one possession,” said Penn State coach Patrick Chambers. “And we wanted to take care of the ball, and I think we did that for the most part.”
In the process, the Nittany Lions relegated Utah to a second-place finish. The Utes finished in a similar spot in 1974.