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Utes closing in on the NIT's big prize: a trip to New York

MORAGA, Calif. — Eyes are on the prize as the Utah Utes take on Saint Mary’s in the NIT quarterfinals. The winner of Wednesday night’s game at McKeon Pavilion is headed to New York for the tournament’s final four.

“As fans of basketball we dream of playing in Madison Square Garden,” said Utah junior Sedrick Barefield. “So it’s really motivating to make sure we go and get the win next game.”

The Utes (21-11) arrived at this point by opening the NIT with wins over UC Davis (69-59) and LSU (95-71). They’re in the quarterfinals for the first time since 1992.

“It’s not as far to look ahead now,” said Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak. “The prize is with one game.”

Although the view is from California, New York is metaphorically within sight. The tournament moves there March 27 and 29.

“I don’t know how many teams remember how the games went in the NIT, but there’s a little bit of oomph to it, certainly, when you can get to the final four,” Krystkowiak said. “You play in Madison Square Garden, which we had a little dose of (against Duke in December 2015), and the quality of the teams ... it’s kind of the warm-up to the NCAA Final Four.

“So you jam in. You’ve got some pretty good teams playing,” he added. “We want to see if we can shake it up a little bit and be a part of that.”

Utah has a history with the NIT in New York. The Utes won the championship in 1947. They finished second in 1974 and third in 1992.

Krystkowiak noted the drive behind this year’s bid to make it back East.

“We’ve kind of taken on Jon Huntsman’s theme that we picked up on over the years — is the ‘Go Big’ theme. That was the top of the board for us,” Krystkowiak said. “We’ve got to believe. Jon believed he could do a lot of things that people said he was crazy about and I believe we can do that. That is one of those lifetime memories. I think we all know that.”

The final step to get there, though, could be a doozy.

Saint Mary’s has won a school-record 30 games this season. The Gaels are led by senior center Jock Landale, who averages 21.3 points and 10.1 rebounds per game.

“They’re a terrific team,” Krystkowiak said.

Utah scrimmaged Saint Mary’s before the season began. The closed gathering took place in the Huntsman Center. No statistics were released.

“That was the first competition we had this year,” Krystkowiak said. “We played 30 minutes of good basketball against them and 10 minutes not so good, and we ended up losing here at our place.”

The rematch, Krystkowiak acknowledged, would make things come full circle. As such, the teams know each other a little bit.

“I haven't watched them all year but we played them early on and know their personnel,” said Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett. “I'm familiar with their program and they are tough, physical and well coached.”

The Gaels reached the NIT quarterfinals with an 89-45 win over Southeastern Louisiana and an 85-81 victory against Washington.

• • •

NIT quarterfinals

Utah (21-11)

at Saint Mary’s (30-5)

McKeon Pavilion — Moraga, California

Wednesday, 8 p.m. (MT)


Radio: ESPN 700AM


Twitter: @DirkFacer