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Utah advances to the 2018 NIT Championship game after topping Western Kentucky

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NCAA Basketball: NIT-Utah vs Western Kentucky Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

It was 20 years ago that Utah was playing for a National Championship, and now they play for the NIT Championship on Thursday night after beating Western Kentucky on Tuesday night by a 69-64 score at Madison Square Garden in New York. The Utes came out very slow, and almost looked just happy to be there after falling down 8-0 out the gate, and trailed by as many as 13 in that opening quarter. The offense wasn’t attacking at all, settling for a lot of jump shots, and the defense allowed Justin Johnson for WKU to get off to a fast start. After about the first five minutes of the game, Utah started to play some good ball and widdled the lead down for WKU before taking their own lead right before halftime. A quick shot by Barefield and a bad pass allowed WKU to tie up the game going into the locker room.

The second half was really a back and forth game, with Utah having the largest lead of the half, which ended up being the final margin. Utah, when they weren’t turning over the ball (13 with WKU scoring 17 points off of) and giving up offensive boards (12), they were actually efficient on both sides of the ball. Utah shot 48% on the game, compared to 35% for WKU, but WKU had 18 more shot attempts in the game, and that’s why the game was as close as it was. Utah wasn’t the best from deep, only going 5 of 16, but Rawson hit the 2 biggest in the 4th quarter, including the one to give Utah the lead for good with about a minute remaining.

Utah got some really good minutes from their seniors tonight, with Justin Bibbins putting in 19 points, but he was unstoppable from the free throw line. He went 12 of 12 from the stripe, and really put the game away in the 4th quarter from there, when Utah only scored the two field goals in the quarter. Collette looked good too, given his back kept him out of the 2nd half against SMC last week, he put in 13 points and pulled down 7 boards. He did a great job at going at WKU’s big men, and didn’t really get too cute. Tyler Rawson was big too, with 12 points and 8 boards. It was he and Bibbins who brought Utah home, with Bibbins penetrating the defense, drawing multiple defenders before kicking out to a wide open Rawson for the biggest shot of the game. Barefield had a nice night with his 14 pionts, although his 3 of 6 from the free throw line is uncharacteristic of the sharp shooter. He was very good from the midrange, and hopefully he can keep it up for another game.

Utah’s coaching staff also moved back to a zone on defense, which dared WKU to shoot from deep, and tried to deny them from getting to the rim and the free throw line. That was a big emphasis for the Utes, and had they closed out more possessions we may have had a more comfortable ending, but they did what they needed to do. Arguably two of the biggest plays of the game happened on defense at the end of the game. Two charges on back to back defensive possessions pretty much sealed the deal, with Collette drawing one on Johnson, when everyone knew who was getting the ball, and Bibbins drew one on Bearden that essentially put the game away for Utah

The Utes will play in the championship game Thursday night at 5pm MT.