Hilltoppers play in NIT semifinal in New York City

WKU guard Lamonte Bearden (1), forwards Justin Johnson (23) and Dwight Coleby (22) talk after a foul during the NIT quarterfinal game between the Oklahoma State Cowboys and the Hilltoppers at Gallagher-Iba Arena in Stillwater, Okla. on Wednesday, March 21st.

Sam Porter

The WKU men’s basketball team is on the brink of history. The Hilltoppers (27-10 overall) play theUniversity of Utah Tuesday night in the semifinal of the NIT in New York, and, with a win, will be playing for the NIT Championship on Thursday night.

WKU defeated three Power 5 schools (Boston College, University of Southern California and Oklahoma State University) to get to the semifinals and will have to defeat a fourth to get to the championship. Before the tournament began, players talked about the accomplishment of winning three games in the NIT and getting to play in Madison Square Garden, also known as the Mecca of Basketball.

“It’s really exciting to be going to play in Madison Square Garden,” senior forward Justin Johnson said. “It’s a big stage. All the things that’s went on in that building, from Muhammad Ali heavyweight fights, to Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, LeBron James and the biggest superstars. But at the end of the day we’re playing for something, so we’re just treating it like another game. We prepare for it the same way.”

Utah enters Tuesday’s matchup with a 22-11 record (11-7 Pac 12) and is a 2 seed. The Utes defeated UC Davis, LSU and 1 seed St. Mary’s to get to MSG. Like WKU, the Utes are balanced across the board scoring-wise. Justin Bibbins, a Long Beach State transfer, leads Utah with 14.7 points per game at the guard position. David Collette (12.7 PPG), Sedrick Barefield (11.6 PPG), and Tyler Rawson (10.8 PPG) also average double figures for the Utes.

“They’ve got great guard play,” head coach Rick Stansbury said. “The fifth year guy from Long Beach leads them in scoring and they really execute their offense well. They’re a really good team. I don’t have to tell you that. They just got done beating LSU by 20 some odd, and went on the road to beat St. Mary’s.”

But the Utes didn’t get this far in the postseason by scoring—they got to this point by playing defense. Utah gives up just 68.7 points per game, which ranked first in the Pac-12 this season. The Utes were the only Pac-12 school to give up less than 70 PPG and will look to slow down a Hilltopper attack that is averaging 83.3 PPG in the NIT, including a 92-point effort on the road against Oklahoma State University.

“I think they’re similar to several of the teams we’ve played,” Stansbury said. “The three teams we just played, one thing they had in common was that they were athletic. Boston College was athletic at the guard spots, USC and Oklahoma State were both athletic too. These guys are the same way, probably as good or better defensively.”

WKU and Utah tip off at 6 p.m. CST in Madison Square Garden in New York City. The game will be televised on ESPN. With a win, the Hilltoppers will play the winner of Mississippi State University and Penn State University in the championship on Thursday night.

“I said this before, I’ll say it again publicly,” Stansbury said. “I’d much rather go win three games in the NIT and get to New York City rather than play one game in the NCAA Tournament and get beat. I’ll stand by that statement.”

Reporter Sam Porter can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @SammyP14.