NEW YORK — And Utah’s hope for an NIT title comes to an end.
Utah came out with the hot hand early, but quickly lost its feel as the Penn State Nittany Lions rolled to an 82-66 victory to claim the 2018 NIT title.
Utah came out shooting 67 percent from the field behind a fired up Sedrick Barefield, who made three of his four 3-pointers in the quarter. But Penn State’s Lamar Stevens answered back with a 3-pointer of their own to end Utah’s run and ultimately their momentum.
Stevens’ made basket would be the first of five 3-pointers in the first half for the Nittany Lions as they reclaimed the advantage and pushed the lead to as much as 10 points before halftime.
Utah managed to get it within 2 points early in the third quarter, but a 1-for-7 shooting drought and multiple turnovers late in the third quarter allowed the Nittany Lions to push the lead to as much as 20 points in the fourth quarter to run away with the victory.
“They got a lot of those 50-50 balls and scored off of them,” senior Justin Bibbins said after the game, “and you can’t do that when you’re basically playing an away game because the fans get going.”
Adding to Utah’s scoring drought was their lack of ability to contain rebounds on key possessions. The Utes finished the game on the losing end of the rebounding battle, 34-27, but were completely outmatched in their attempt.
“We got two defensive rebounds in the first half clean and then they popped them away and scored,” head coach Larry Krystkowiak said after the loss. “It’s just a little bit more physicality. They got extra possessions, extra baskets at the rim, and we were flailing around at the rim.
“There was a lot of baskets from close proximity that we should have finished and that ends up being a significant difference, I think, in the basketball game,” Krystkowiak continued. “So, you know, it’s not complicated in my mind.”
Utah would cut into Penn State’s lead late in the fourth quarter behind a couple of Barefield baskets, getting as close as 15 points, but the Utes had nothing left to give as Penn State continued to push the lead and keep Utah from making a late run.
Utah was without their starting center David Collette for much of the game after sustaining a neck injury late in the second quarter. Collette converged to gather a rebound, but got hit in the face and fell to the ground and lay motionless for a couple of minutes before being helped off the court to get tested in the locker room.
Trainers feared Collette had a concussion, but he passed all the required tests and checked back into the game midway through the third quarter. Collette, though, would only stay in the game for a couple minutes before checking out for the rest of the game. Krystkowiak said Collette “didn’t quite look like he had it” and “Jayce (Johnson) had been giving us some good minutes.”
Johnson fared well in Collette’s absence, but was no match for the physical Penn State frontcourt, who managed 34 points in the paint. Stevens, alone, managed 14 points in the post in a dominant performance as the team’s leading scorer. Stevens finished the game with 28 points on 11-of-15 shooting, including 4-of-5 from behind the arc, as he claimed the most outstanding player award.
The Nittany Lions finished the game shooting 55 percent from the field, and shot 41 percent from behind the arc on nine made 3-pointers. Krystkowiak said it was one of the few times an opposing team as shot better than 50 percent from the field against their defense.
The last opponent to shoot over 50 percent from the field against Utah was USC on Feb. 24. The Trojans shot 50.5 percent from the field in a win over the Utes. But only a handful of teams managed to shoot that well against the Utes this season.
“I don’t care if you’re in the NIT, the NCAA (Tournament), baseball, football, whatever it is, defense wins championships,” Krystkowiak said, speaking about Utah’s struggle to contain Penn State on the defensive side of the ball. “Plain and simple, they had guys that stepped up and made plays, and when you’re taking the ball out of the net and you’re not scoring at the same clip — you can do the math — and that becomes a run.
Utah was led in scoring by Barefield, who finished with 22 points on 8-of-11 shooting, 6-of-8 from behind the arc. Bibbins finished with 15 points on 4-of-12 shooting from the field.