It wasn’t pretty. At times it was downright bizarre, but in the end, the University of Utah Utah men’s basketball team put together a 69-59 comeback victory against the UC Davis Aggies in the first round of the NIT.
After trailing for most of the game, the Utes outscored the Aggies 22-11 in the final period as the talent disparity between the teams eventually proved too much for a scrappy and tenacious UC Davis team to overcome. Justin Bibbins led the Utes in scoring with 21 points. Forwards Tyler Rawson and Donnie Tillman each added 11.
Utah had a rough start to the game as UC Davis built a 17-11 lead in the first quarter — NIT games are experimenting with some rule changes, like 10 minute quarters and a longer 3-point line. Utah shot just 21 percent from the field, committed four turnovers and gave up multiple offensive rebounds to the Aggies.
Following the game, Bibbins said playing in the first game of the NIT after losing in the conference tournament can be “kind of like a hangover for basketball.”
The lowest part of Utah’s “hangover” came with five minutes left in the half when head coach Larry Krystkowiak stormed onto the court during play to confront one of the referees about an apparent bad call. He was given a technical foul and nevertheless, he persisted. Krystkowiak received another technical, resulting in an ejection. He then smashed a chair or two on the way out.
“I think it fired them up,” said Utah associate head coach Tommy Connor, who took over the head coaching duties for the remainder of the game.
“When something like that happens, you can tell your coach is fighting for you,” Bibbins said, who agreed that the ejection fired up the team.
“It’s different from sitting in the chair and making suggestions obviously, I had to make some decisions, but we have a great staff,” Connor said. “This isn’t about me coaching the game, it’s about our players winning. They know what to do on the floor, we just gave them a little guidance.”
While UC Davis was able to build up a lead of 11 points in the first half, Utah was able to cut the Aggies’ lead to 33-29 at halftime by making three 3-pointers in the last few minutes following Krystkowiak’s ejection.
“Our guys felt good about themselves at the half to come back and get [the lead] down to four,” Connor said.
Through the course of the third quarter, Utah whittled the UC Davis lead down to one point, later taking the lead on the first possession of the fourth quarter. The Utes didn’t look back from there.
Bibbins said following the game that he and the other seniors are glad to have at least one more game to play in their college careers.
“It means the world to me,” Bibbins said. “You experience it in high school, but you know you’re going to college. At the end of your college career, it’s kind of like the unknown. You don’t know what’s next, so you have to string it along as long as possible.”
Next up for Utah is a second-round matchup with LSU, Monday night at 7 p.m. in the Huntsman Center.