On paper, Mississippi State was supposed to pose the biggest challenge to Penn State. The Bulldogs, like the Nittany Lions, had dispatched of the top two seeds in its bracket, at times with relative ease. Their length and tenacity on defense would make life difficult for the Nittany Lion guards, and the lack of Mike Watkins in the post would make it that much easier for brown MSU’s tall guys to crowd the paint and prevent Penn State from executing their game plan.
As we all now know, that couldn’t have been farther from reality. The Nittany Lions trailed for all of 16 seconds, and then used a 24-0 run to make the game unreachable for the Bulldogs. The closest Mississippi State would get while it still mattered would be 18, and even the patented Nittany Lion scoring drought wasn’t enough to overcome the absolute clinic the team put on in this game.
Utah’s path to the final was a little different. The Utes needed every second of the 40 minutes in order to beat Western Kentucky, who started the game up 18-5. Utah methodically erased the deficit to go onto the half tied, and used the final seconds, and back-to-back turnovers by the Hilltoppers, to finally win the game. Prior to that, Utah beat St. Mary’s in overtime, a team believed to be one of, if not the best in the whole tournament.
The Utes and Lions now face each other for the right to become NIT Champions. For guys like Shep Garner and Julian Moore, this is an opportunity to end their careers with a championship, leaving a piece of history behind them when they leave. One that will, hopefully, soon be followed by a different type legacy for others to leave behind.
Scouting the Opposition
Justin Bibbins has been everything for Utah this season, especially in the NIT. He’s averaged 16.25 points per game in the NIT, to go along with his 3.5 assists. His 19 points were integral in completing the comeback win over Western Kentucky on Tuesday, 12 of which came from a perfect free throw shooting night. Tyler Rawson and David Collete are perfect complements Bibbins, both being block machines inside. Often times these blocks lead to run outs on the other end, which was one of the major ways the Utes came back from a 13-point first quarter deficit against the Hilltoppers.
Unlike the teams Penn State has faced up to this point (with the exception of Temple), Utah doesn’t particularly skew to the extreme at any one category. Overall, they’re 60th in offensive efficiency, which is still top 100, but it’s not the top-30 offense of Notre Dame and Marquette, but it’s good enough to score when they need to. Their defensive efficiency, on that note, is good enough at 55th in the nation, but when compared to Penn State’s own 18th-ranked defense, there’s a clear gap between the two teams.
What to Watch For
Continuation - Penn State had on of the best performances of its season on Tuesday night against Mississippi State. The game was over well before halftime, and it had to do with both a combination of lights out shooting and dominant defense. Needless to say, if the Nittany Lions can do that again, they’ll be NIT champions.
Avoid the comeback - When Western Kentucky Started the game up 18-5, it looked like game over. The Utes, however, settled in and were able to slowly cut the lead down using defense and turnovers. If Penn State finds itself in the same situation as WKU, it would be in their best interest to ensure they don’t ease up.
Atmosphere - The last time the Nittany Lions were in the NIT final, it looked like a home game for the blue and white. It was evident that a Penn State contingent was present on Tuesday. Let’s see if that contingent turns into a pseudo home field advantage for this game.
Shep Garner is a man on a mission. This is the first time he’s competed in a postseason tournament as a Nittany Lion, and he’s making it count. He’s not likely to let his team come this far and not leave with a championship. The Utes, however, may have something to say about it, especially after having already beaten St. Mary’s on the road. Utah 110, Penn State 88.