New York – As arguably the most chaotic season in college basketball in recent memory reaches its final stages, the NIT tournament made its annual trip to Madison Square Garden to crown a champion of best of the best of the first teams out of the NCAA Tournament. Following a Tuesday night which featured a nail-biting game and a blowout, the stage was set to crown a champion inside the Mecca. The Nittany Lions, fresh off of a 15-point victory against Mississippi State, aimed to claim their second NIT championship in school history. Utah on the other hand, entered their first championship game since 1974 following a narrow five-point win over Western Kentucky.
After a scoreless first minute and a half, the scoring began with a David Collette dunk to give the Utes a 2-0 advantage. Penn State would tie the game at two a minute later. The two teams would exchange buckets and found themselves in a 14-14 tie with 3:09 to play in the first quarter. From there, Utah threw the first punch via Sedrick Barefield. Barefield would knock down three-pointers on back to back possessions to put the Utes on top 20-14, forcing Penn State coach Patrick Chambers to call a timeout. Barefield would be a problem for the Nittany Lions in the opening frame as he scored 11 of his team-high 22 points in the first ten minutes while connecting on all four of his shots. However, Penn State would rally and take a 21-20 lead after one quarter, finished by the second alley-oop of the quarter between Tony Carr and Josh Reaves with Reaves the beneficiary.
The second quarter would begin with much less firepower than the first as a three by Carr and a layup by Utah senior Tyler Rawson would be the only scoring for the first two minutes and change as Penn State remained in the lead, 24-22. Following a Utah free throw to cut the lead to one, Collette took a shot to the face after a Reaves made three and was taken to the locker room and eventually led to only 13 minutes on the floor.
“I didn’t really talk to him. I mean, he got whacked pretty good. You know, hurt his neck. They were fearful initially of a concussion and he passed all that, came back in the game. Didn’t quite look like he had it.” Said Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak
Without a senior leader, Utah struggled over the next five minutes and found themselves trailing 37-27 with three minutes to play in the half. Utah would manage to cut the deficit in half and saw themselves down by 5, 39-34 heading into halftime.
In the beginning of the third quarter, Utah continue to chip away and cut the lead to as little as two points as Justin Bibbins scored five of Utah’s first seven points of the half to only trail 43-41 with 7:43 left in the quarter. Penn State would then turn up its intensity on both ends of the floor which translated to a 10-2 run which opened the lead back to 10 with 2:55 to play in the third.
“It doesn’t just happen.” said Krystkowiak. “It not like flipping a switch on, two points, add another two points. You know, for us, in that case it was all about defense”
“You can’t go on a run unless the team is scoring — we just locked down on defense.” said Penn State sophomore Tony Carr, who finished a rebound shy of a triple double: 15 Points, 9 Rebounds, 14 Assists.
The Nittany Lions were capable of delivering the knock-out punch as they did a similar thing in their semifinal win over Mississippi State Tuesday evening. The Nittany Lions tallied off a 24-0 run over 10 minutes to turn the game into a blowout in the second quarter. Penn State would continue to click and stretched the lead to 15, 63-48 after three quarters.
In the fourth, it continued to be more of the same for Penn State. Riding behind their defense, the Nittany Lions saw their largest lead of the game, 69-49 with eight minutes to play. Utah would attempt to mount any source of consistent offense but found themselves unable to as they would not get any closer than 14. When the final buzzer sounded, Penn State was champions of the NIT for the second time in nine years.
“What an incredible year, you know, 26 wins and to finish on such a high note for this team and staff and program, credit goes to these guys.” Said Penn State coach Patrick Chambers
After finishing seventh in a conference that had four teams in the NCAA Tournament, one team finishing in the Sweet 16, and one team that is currently in the Final Four, it was safe to say, the Big 10 produced solid teams.
“It’s a shame the Big Ten didn’t get much respect on Selection Sunday but playing on the road in the Big Ten is brutal.” Said Chambers. “We got to a point where we started feeling more comfortable on the road; and I think you see that, beating Notre Dame on St. Patrick’s Day; and Marquette in the Al McGuire 3700 and we were able to get some big-time wins.”
Tony Carr was named to the NIT All-Tournament team while Lamar Stevens, who scored a game high 28 points, including his 1,000-career point was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
“It was a great feeling, you know. It was better just winning this championship, though. It’s a great accolade but I’d much rather have the Championship any day.” said Stevens on scoring his 1,000th point inside the World’s Most Famous Arena.
Utah, who finishes their season 23-11 and a runner-up in the tournament do not take their experience in the Big Apple for granted.
“Win or lose, you want to win the game but losing it doesn’t take away from anything. You know, you get to come to New York with your boys. You’ve been practicing since August, grinding with them, so nothing is going to take that away from you, especially playing this deep in March.” Said Utah guard Justin Bibbins who finished with 15 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists in his final collegiate game.