NEW YORK — One more game.
That’s all that’s left for the seniors of the University of Utah men’s basketball team. It’s also the last opportunity for the team to play together. But what a way to end a collegiate career and season: an NIT championship game appearance and a chance to end the season on a high note.
For many, the NIT is seen as a consolation prize for the teams that didn’t qualify for the NCAA Tournament — the losers bracket, the tournament to find the 69th-best team in the country, etc. But for those involved in the tournament, it’s an opportunity to end the season strong and build toward the next.
“In my mind, there’s two teams that end their season on a note that they are really happy about,” Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak said after his team advanced to the championship game Tuesday. “There’s a lot of disappointment along the way, and 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.”
For Utah seniors, it’s one more opportunity to play basketball, as the future is always hard to predict in a highly competitive world of professional basketball. It’s the only guarantee remaining.
“It means the world to us,” guard Justin Bibbins said. “We’re seniors, this is our last go-around playing with the guys, and you know, I love this team. I keep wanting to play with them every day, and to extend the game one more day and to do shootaround and another game with them, this just means the world to us.”
Bibbins’ statement is not just something to say to try to elevate an inferior tournament; it’s a genuine look into the emotion of a player on his way out.
“I’m just excited,” David Collette added. “We couldn’t go out any better way, you know. We’re disappointed, obviously, we wanted to make it to the NCAA Tournament, but making it to the NIT championship, I’ll take that any day.”
But just making it to the NIT championship game is not enough. Leaving New York without hardware will certainly leave some disappointment — a look back at what could have been. But Collette said leaving with a trophy has been “the whole goal we’ve had the whole time.”
Collette added that Utah is going to “stick by our word this time” and “win this thing and bring back the trophy.”
Winning one game at the historic Madison Square Garden will certainly bode well for a team that can now relax and not get caught up in the emotion of playing at a famous venue in the Big Apple. But Utah’s opponent, Penn State, already seems to have a leg-up on the competition as they’re playing their best basketball of the season and routed Mississippi State 75-60 in the semifinals Tuesday.
Penn State is also well-versed with Madison Square Garden, having played in the Big Ten Tournament a few weeks ago where the Nittany Lions took down Northwestern and Ohio State before dropping a game against NCAA Tournament team Purdue.
“I really think that prepared us for this game,” Penn State head coach Patrick Chambers said, speaking about having played in the arena already. “We’ve been here before. … We wanted to get in here and play as often as we could and now you’re starting to see some of the benefits of that.”
Utah looks to claim its first NIT championship win since 1947. Since then, Utah has only made it to the final weekend two other times: a second-place finish in 1974 and a Final Four appearance in 1992.
Utah and Penn State will tipoff at Madison Square Garden in New York on Thursday at 5 p.m. MT on ESPN2.