Hilltoppers fall to Utes in NIT Final Four

Western Kentucky’s Lamonte Bearden shoots over Utah’s Justin Bibbins during second-half action of Tuesday’s National Invitation Tournament semifinals at Madison Square Garden in New York. Utah won 69-64. For more photos, visit bgdailynews.com.

NEW YORK – Utah and Western Kentucky’s game Tuesday night involved 13 ties, 13 lead changes, two late charge calls on the Hilltoppers and one huge 3-pointer from the Utes’ Tyler Rawson.

Rawson’s 3 with 38 seconds left proved the game-winner as No. 2 seed Utah outlasted fourth-seeded WKU 69-64 in an NIT semifinal at Madison Square Garden. Utah outscored the Toppers 6-0 in the game’s final minute.

The Utes (23-11) will play for the tournament title Thursday against Penn State. WKU (27-11) ended its season a few plays short of the NIT championship game.

“All you can ask for is an opportunity,” WKU coach Rick Stansbury said. “We had an opportunity tonight and we didn’t finish it off. Utah finished it off.”

WKU’s trip to New York for the NIT semifinals was the culmination of a dramatic season for a program that hadn’t played past its conference tournament since 2013.

The Tops started the year with just seven available scholarship players and finished it with a still-thin roster of nine. The close-knit WKU squad scored a November upset of Purdue, filled E.A. Diddle Arena past its capacity three times during Conference USA play and came up one point short of the NCAA Tournament in a 67-66 league title loss to Marshall.

The Hilltoppers bounced back from the disappointment of that defeat by knocking off Boston College, Southern California and Oklahoma State in the first three rounds of the NIT.

WKU entered Tuesday one of the final four teams alive for its first NIT championship. A five-point loss in a back-and-forth battle ended the season.

“Under a minute to go, it’s a one-possession game,” Stansbury said. “That probably hurts more than anything because we know there’s a lot of plays we could have gotten that we left on that floor that we didn’t make.”

WKU led by a 13-point margin – 18-5 – in the first quarter before Utah came back and forced a 32-all tie at halftime. The teams were then tied at 52 after three periods, setting up a tense final 10 minutes.

Utah didn’t hit a single shot from the floor in between Rawson 3-pointers at the 9:09 and 0:38 marks of the fourth quarter.

The Utes stayed in the game by playing strong defense and hitting 12 of 14 free throws in the game’s final quarter. Utah’s leading scorer, guard Justin Bibbins, cashed in on all 12 of his foul shots Tuesday.

The Hilltoppers grabbed a 58-55 lead on a Taveion Hollingsworth jumper with 6:44 left. That was the last field goal either team tallied until forward Justin Johnson got to the rim and put in a layup with 1:27 left, making it 64-63 WKU.

The Toppers then got the rebound off a missed Sedrick Barefield 3-pointer and worked the ball to the Johnson. The senior was whistled for an offensive foul when he collided with Utah big man David Collette at the basket with 46 seconds left.

“Coach puts the ball in my hands to make a play, and I don’t think it’s a charge,” Johnson said. “ … I thought he slid under me. I had already left my feet.

“The call, you can’t change a call. We still were up one, and you get a stop, you still have a chance to win a ballgame.”

Utah had its chance to take the lead and took advantage. Bibbins drove to the paint to suck in the WKU defense and kicked to Rawson for a wide-open 3-pointer.

The forward Rawson was 1-of-6 from beyond the arc to that point but buried the 3. That triple gave the Utes a 66-64 lead with 38 seconds left.

The Hilltoppers’ ensuing possession ended with another charge. This time, guard Lamonte Bearden was called for driving over Bibbins in the lane with 23 seconds to go.

“The thing that was cool is we take a lot of pride in taking charges, and (WKU) as a team got a little thirsty to get their feet in the paint at the end, you know,” Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said.

Bibbins hit two more free throws, Johnson missed a 3-pointer and Barefield hit one more foul shot with five seconds left to seal the 69-64 Utah win.

Bibbins (19 points), Barefield (14), Collette (13) and Rawson (12) all enjoyed double-digit scoring nights for Utah.

WKU forced the Utes into 13 turnovers, off which it scored 17 points, and got double-doubles from Johnson (24 points, 11 rebounds) and Dwight Coleby (10 points, 13 rebounds). Bearden (12 points) also reached double figures.

Guard Darius Thompson dished out seven assists against only one turnover but struggled to a 1-of-10 shooting night. Hollingsworth went 3-of-10 from the floor as WKU shot a season-worst 34.8 percent as a team.

“There’s not going to be but two happy teams,” Stansbury said. “Everybody is going to have this feeling (except) the team that wins in the NIT national championship and the team that wins the NCAA championship.

“Right now, I guess there’s six teams left that’s going to have this feeling, and that’s it. Again, we’re not going to let this feeling take away what these guys accomplished this year.”

Up next

Western Kentucky will head into the 2018-19 season coming off the momentum of only the 10th 27-win campaign in school history, and first since the 2007-08 squad went 29-7.

The Hilltoppers will strive for their first Conference USA championship since joining the league before the 2014-15 season. They’ll also aim for their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2013.

Coleby, Johnson and Thompson have all finished their WKU careers. Among players on the active roster, Bearden, Hollingsworth, Josh Anderson, Moustapha Diagne, Marek Nelson and Jake Ohmer are all projected to return.

Transfers Jalen Baker and Jared Savage will be eligible next season. Four-star recruit Dalano Banton highlights five fall signees. Stansbury and his staff will look to add to that roster over the coming weeks.

Notes

Stansbury is 42-28 after two years at WKU and 335-194 overall in his coaching career. … Tuesday marked the first meeting between the Hilltoppers and Utah. WKU finished the season a combined 5-3 against teams from the American Athletic, Atlantic Coast, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pacific-12 conferences. … Johnson hit the Toppers’ first 3-pointer of the night with 8:22 left in the first quarter. That extended WKU’s streak of consecutive games with a made 3 to 976, dating to March 15, 1987. … The Hilltoppers are 12-15 all-time in the NIT and 19-22 at Madison Square Garden. … Thompson (37 minutes) finished the year with a program-record 1,354 minutes played in a season. He passed No. 2 Brett McNeal (1,326, 1986-87) for No. 1 on that list Tuesday.{&end}

– Follow Daily News sports reporter Brad Stephens on Twitter @BradBGDN or visit bgdailynews.com.

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Bowling Green Daily News sports reporter primarily covering Western Kentucky football and men's basketball.

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