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Utes use Larry Krystkowiak's ejection and more as fuel in a 69-59 win over UC Davis

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah kicked off — make that ticked off — its National Invitation Tournament opener with a 69-59 victory over UC Davis Wednesday night.

Senior guard Justin Bibbins, who finished with a game-high 21 points, said an outburst that led to a pair of technical fouls and the ejection of head coach Larry Krystkowiak in the second quarter was a factor in the come-from-behind win.

“When something like that happens, you can tell your coach is fighting for you and you could see he wanted it,” Bibbins said. “We came in and laid an egg the first five minutes, or 10 minutes I would say, and seeing his passion, especially, fired us up.”

The Utes never held a lead or were even tied until Donnie Tillman’s layup with 9:48 to go in the fourth quarter gave them a 49-48 advantage. The shot ushered in a 9-0 run that turned the sluggish game around.

Utah eventually led by as many as 13 points down the stretch.

“I think we were just getting stops and we were making our runs. That’s it,” said Tillman, who added that the rebounding effort may have been the best of the season. “We executed and everything fell into place.”

The Utes (20-11) secured their fifth consecutive 20-win season with the victory and advanced to the second round of the NIT. They’ll face LSU (18-14) Monday (7 p.m., ESPNU) in the Huntsman Center.

Getting there, though, wasn’t easy. UC Davis (22-11) provided quite a challenge. The Aggies held an 11-point lead in the second quarter. They made things tough even with Big West Player of the Year TJ Shorts II limited to 21 minutes and 10 points because of foul trouble.

“We knew this was a really good team,” said associate head coach Tommy Connor, who took over when Krystkowiak was ejected. “Our guys knew it, too.”

Connor noted that the Utes were prepared for it and didn’t take UC Davis lightly. They won the rebounding battle 35-29 and cashed in on a 23-10 foul advantage.

Utah was 20 of 25 from the line, while UC Davis was 8 of 10. The Utes also got a big lift from their bench, outscoring the Aggies 22-10.

It all contributed to the comeback in a game that featured several experimental rule changes. This year’s NIT includes four quarters of play, a longer 3-point shot, a wider lane and a 20-second shot clock after offensive rebounds.

The alterations, though, weren’t Utah’s biggest problem. Rather, it was a 9-2 deficit to start the game. The Utes trailed 17-11 after one quarter and 33-29 at halftime. UC Davis led 48-47 after three quarters.

“The nice thing is we were able to chip away at that lead with the free throws and getting the ball back,” said Connor, who noted that they were happy to close the gap before the first half ended.

Things continued to brighten when play resumed.

Connor was pleased with the defense in the second half, particularly in the fourth quarter. UC Davis didn’t score in the latter until Shorts made a free throw with 5:22 left to play.

By then, the Utes were comfortably ahead and were never seriously challenged the rest of the way.

“Really proud of our guys,” Connor said. “Man, they gutted it out.”

Krystkowiak’s ejection, complete with the throwing of a stool on the way to the locker room, proved to be a pivotal point. It came with 5:07 remaining and put the Utes in a 26-17 hole after Shorts made all four free throws on the technical. The Aggies took an 11-point lead less than two minutes later.

Utah climbed back into contention before the half was complete thanks to a pair of 3-pointers by Gabe Bealer and one from Sedrick Barefield.

It proved another spark as the Utes went on to outscore the Aggies 40-26 in the second half.

Tillman said it was “a combination of just energy, effort and communication.”

And more.

Besides Bibbins, Tillman and Tyler Rawson all scored in double-figures with 11 points apiece. Rawson also grabbed a game-high nine rebounds.

Twitter: @DirkFacer