NEW YORK — A pair of 3-pointers and made free throws gave the University of Utah enough at the end to edge Western Kentucky 69-64 in the NIT semifinals Tuesday.
Utah failed to score a field goal in more than 8 minutes late in the game, but a drive to the basket and kickout pass by Justin Bibbins to a wide open Tyler Rawson behind the arc for a made 3-pointer gave Utah to a 2-point lead with under a minute to play.
A pair of made free throws by Bibbins and another by Sedrick Barefield would secure the win and a berth in the National Invitation Tournament championship game.
“That’s a great experience,” senior David Collette said after Utah’s win. “That’s awesome, nothing like it. It’s great.”
Bibbins led the Utes in the win with 19 points on 3-of-8 shooting, and was a perfect 12-of-12 from the free throw line. Nine of his 12 points from the charity stripe came in the fourth quarter.
Bibbins said he was “happy to go to the line” and that once he got “into a flow and made four in a row, I tried to get there more because my shot wasn’t falling on the outside.
“I just went to the basics and knocked them down,” he added.
For Utah, it was the little things at the end of the game after struggling to match the high-powered intensity of the Hilltoppers in the opening minutes of play. Utah started the game shooting 0-of-5 and allowing Western Kentucky to jump to an 18-5 lead before Utah fought back and tied up the game at halftime.
“The concept in my mind is that there are no little things,” Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak said. “You’ll see a missed block-out, free throw block-out, something that everybody perceives as little, that ends up changing the trajectory of the entire outcome of the game. It could mean a team advancing to the Final Four with their first game.”
Krystkowiak added that his team likely shoots more free throws in practice than any other team in college and that’s how the team found its rhythm to close out the game.
“If Justin goes 9-of-12, we’re not sitting here at the podium,” Krystkowiak said. “We’re in consoling each other. It was neat, a couple of key elements. The rebounding, obviously, is a little thing, but it’s been a big thing for us. So those were real keys in the game.”
In a rare feat, the Utes outrebounded their opponent 38-32 to control the glass and keep the Hilltoppers from second-chance points.
“That felt good that we outrebounded a team and found a way to win,” Bibbins said. “We’re trying to find different ways to win games and that was huge for us to outrebound them. They are a great rebounding team.
“Threes weren’t falling, so 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. We’re piecing it together now for the final game and it feels really good.”
Although Utah outrebounded Western Kentucky, the Hilltoppers managed 17 points off of Utah's 13 turnovers. As a result, Western Kentucky managed to keep the game close despite Utah shooting nearly 15 percent better from the field.
The Hilltoppers were led by Justin Johnson’s 24 points on 10-of-20 shooting and 3-of-7 shooting from the 3-point line. Johnson was a mismatch for the Utes at times as he could be physical in the post, but also stand outside and hit from deep. But Collette said the team “decided to be a little more aggressive with him” and kept him from having an impact late in the game.
Johnson was called for an offensive foul in a game-changing play with 46 seconds left in the game. On the following Utah possession, Rawson hit a 3-pointer to give Utah the lead. It was the second offensive foul on Western Kentucky with under a minute to play, as Bibbins drew a charge by Lamonte Bearden with 22 seconds left.
Utah will play Penn State, who defeated Mississippi State 75-60 in the second semifinal game Tuesday, on Thursday at 5 p.m. MT at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The game will be broadcast on ESPN2.
Notes: Utah had four players in double figures Tuesday: Bibbins (19 points), Sedrick Barefield (14), Collette (13), and Rawson (12). Freshman Donnie Tillman nearly had a double-double in the win, finishing with 8 points and 10 rebounds. … Utah was without backup center Jayce Johnson after he rolled his ankle during practice Tuesday. Krystkowiak said there is a chance that Johnson returns to play Thursday.