New York – A week and a half ago, countless teams sat around a nearby TV screen in hopes of hearing their name called to play in the NCAA Tournament. 68 teams heard their names and celebrated in elation.
Many, many, teams however did not hear it. They did however, have a second chance: The NIT Tournament. For Utah, a third-place finisher in the PAC-12 and Western Kentucky, also a third-place finisher from Conference USA had gone through their respective sides of the bracket and met up in Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night with a trip to the NIT Final on the line.
With the bright lights on, the jitters were evident. Within the first minute of the contest, both teams combined for a missed dunk, a poor alley-oop attempt, and two turnovers. After getting the early nerves out of the way, Western Kentucky rode senior Justin Johnson early on as he scored the first eight points of the game and helped the Hilltoppers jump out to an 8-0 lead three and a half minutes into the game, prompting a Utah timeout.
“I felt like we came out flat and with no energy.” said senior David Collette. “The biggest thing was to get our guys going and get some more energy flying around out there.”
Utah would break into the scoring column on the first possession out of the timeout courtesy of a Gabe Bealer three to cut the lead to 8-3. The Hilltoppers however would continuously turn Utah over and led most of the opening quarter with a double-digit lead and closed the quarter leading 19-11.
The second quarter would open in favor of Western Kentucky as they held a 25-16 lead with 7:20 to play in the half. From there, the Utes turned it on, using a 11-0 run over the next three minutes, capped off by a Sedrick Barefield jumper to give Utah their first lead of the game. Utah would not trail for the remainder of the half and went into the locker room tied at 32.
Utah would open the scoring in the second half on a Tyler Rawson jumper and Barefield layup to give the Utes a 36-32 lead a minute and a half into the third quarter. Western Kentucky would ultimately respond and tie the game up a 39 with seven minutes remaining in the third. The quarter would continue to be back and forth as the lead changed six times and featured two ties including one at the end of the third, at 51.
Utah would once again re-take the lead on a Collette free throw to give the Utes a 52-51 lead eight seconds into the final quarter. Following the Collette free throw, Western Kentucky would take a 53-52 lead on a pair of Josh Anderson free throws. The Hilltoppers would not allow Utah to take another lead for the next eight minutes.
With a minute and a half to go, senior Justin Bibbins would take over to ensure that his team and his career would live to see one more game. After knocking down a pair of free throws to give Utah a 63-62 lead, Bibbins would see his team trail by one after another Johnson bucket to give the Hilltoppers a 64-63 lead. On the ensuing possession, Bibbins would dish the ball off to teammate Tyler Rawson who would knock down a three-pointer from the right of the key to give Utah a 66-64 lead with 38 seconds to play. Looking to get a stop on defense, Bibbins would step in front of guard Lamonte Bearden and draw the charge to ultimately lock up the win. After clutch free throws from Bibbins, Utah would escape the Hilltoppers and advance with a 69-64 victory.
For seniors Collette and Bibbins, playing one final game together is special.
“It means the world to us. We’re seniors so this is our last game of the season, our last go around playing with the guys. I love this team and playing with them every day.” Said Bibbins.
On the other side for Western Kentucky, especially senior Justin Johnson, it was a tough way to end a career.
“I wish I had another year in a Hilltopper uniform.” said Johnson. “This year has been by far the best year of my career.”
After finishing third in a competitive Conference USA, head coach Rick Stansbury is proud of the season and finish his team had.
“There are 8 teams left playing college basketball. And Western Kentucky was one of them. I like that.” Said Stansbury.
The Hilltoppers were led by Justin Johnson who scored 24 points and grabbed 11 rebounds.
The Utes were led by Bibbins, who scored 19 points and dished out 4 assists.
Western Kentucky (27-11) finish their season with a disappointing loss in the NIT Semifinals.
Utah (23-11) face the winner of Penn State and Mississippi State Thursday night in the NIT Championship