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Utah, Western Kentucky to meet for the first time in NIT semifinals

NEW YORK — Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak joined the NIT’s other Final Four coaches for a press conference at the Marriott Marquis on Monday. Krystkowiak, Western Kentucky’s Rick Stansbury, Mississippi State’s Ben Howland and Penn State’s Pat Chambers posed for group photos with the championship trophy before addressing the media.

“We’re awfully excited to be a part of this tournament,” said Krystkowiak, who noted how the Utes have responded since losing to Oregon in the Pac-12 tournament quarterfinals. They’ve won three straight NIT games — topping UC Davis, LSU and Saint Mary’s — to reach the semifinals at Madison Square Garden.

“This is tremendous for our team,” Krystkowiak said.

Utah and Western Kentucky square off in Tuesday’s semifinals (5 p.m., ESPN).

“The teams that make it to the Final Four of the NIT didn’t make it here by accident,” he said. “There’s a really good chance that there’s something positive happening with the culture.”

Krystkowiak told reporters that Western Kentucky is going to be a tremendous challenge. The Hilltoppers, he continued, are playing really well and are a tight-knit group.

“That’s a team that’s clicking on all cylinders right now,” Krystkowiak said. “So we’re going to have our hands full with really good players at each position and (we’re) looking forward to the opportunity.”

Western Kentucky opened the NIT with a win at home over Boston College. Then came road victories at USC and Oklahoma State. Krystkowiak pointed out that the Hilltoppers have shot 333 more free throws this season than the opposition (855-552). They shoot 54.9 percent from the field and have racked up 266 steals.

“There’s a lot of different components that stand out,” Krystkowiak said. “You’ve got to be good at different phases of the game.”

Senior forward Justin Johnson leads a tight rotation for the Hilltoppers with 15.4 points and 9.4 rebounds.

The Utes have Western Kentucky’s respect as well.

“We know we’ve got out hands full there,” said Stanbury, who praised Krystkowiak and Utah’s play on both offense and defense.

EXTRA STUFF: This will be the first time Utah and Western Kentucky have ever met. … The Utes visited the 9/11 Memorial on Monday. … Seniors Justin Bibbins and Tyler Rawson were Utah’s player representatives at the media gathering. ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla served as host for the segment with the coaches. … Krystkowiak’s college coach at Montana, Mike Montgomery, is on the NIT committee and attended the media event.


Twitter: @DirkFacer