INDIANAPOLIS — Many times this season, Utah men’s basketball coach Craig Smith talked about how he felt his team was a tightknit group.

That chemistry was on display during Utah’s run through the NIT, as the Runnin’ Utes played four national postseason games before the season came to an end Tuesday night with a 100-90 loss to Indiana State in the NIT semifinals.

“Senior year was great. It’s been really special to be with these guys and have a ton of memories,” Utah fifth-year center Branden Carlson said just minutes after his storied college career came to an end.

“It’s been a journey for sure. Just the emotions, you’re sad it’s over. You’re sad that you don’t have any more games. You’re done playing with these guys up here, my teammates and being coached by Coach Smith. That’s it.”

“It’s been a journey for sure. Just the emotions, you’re sad it’s over. You’re sad that you don’t have any more games. You’re done playing with these guys up here, my teammates and being coached by Coach Smith. That’s it.”

—  Utah center Branden Carlson

In Utah’s final game as a member of the Pac-12, the Utes looked sharp on offense most of the night. They shot 52.3% from the field, made 17 of 29 3-pointers — that tied a school record for makes — and only turned the ball over nine times.

What got them in trouble were blips against the most efficient offense in the country, as Indiana State became the only team to score 100 points against the Utes in regulation this season — Arizona needed triple overtime to accomplish that feat earlier in the year.

The Sycamores, after both teams went into halftime tied at 44-44, shot 60% in the second half and made 12 of their own 3-pointers while also hitting 14 of 20 free throws (compared to 5 of 10 for Utah).

“We didn’t get enough stops, really. That’s what it comes down to,” said Utah guard Deivon Smith, who led the Runnin’ Utes with a career-high 28 points while adding seven rebounds and six assists.

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For a team that had aspirations of playing in the NCAA Tournament fall short, the Utes’ run through the NIT had its moments and provided a glimpse at what the team could do when it’s playing its best basketball.

While a reported seven other Pac-12 teams declined invitations to play in the NIT, according to ESPN, the Utes ended up making a solid run.

“I think it brought us together in the postseason. I know we were kind of iffy about it, or just wanting to play in the NIT instead of playing in the tournament because we felt we were a tournament team,” Deivon Smith said about a team where only two players — Carlson and Cole Bajema — have exhausted their NCAA eligibility.

“But I feel like we got really connected during this stretch and during our hard practices, film, scout, whatever we had, I feel like we were all bought in on winning, winning an NIT championship and playing for each other, playing for BC and playing for the guys that are leaving.”

Utah Utes guard Deivon Smith (5) drops the ball between Indiana State Sycamores center Robbie Avila (21) and guard Jayson Kent (20) during an NIT semifinal basketball game at the Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis on Tuesday, April 2, 2024. Utah lost 100-90. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Utah started NIT play with a nine-point win against UC Irvine, then followed that with victories over Iowa and VCU, all at the Huntsman Center.

The Utes’ season ended in front of a pro-Indiana State crowd — just 75 miles from their Terre Haute, Indiana, campus — but it gave Utah the chance to play at historic Hinkle Fieldhouse.

“What an amazing facility. When we walked into practice yesterday morning, we walked in here about 7:40 a.m., which is 5:40 a.m. for Utah time. But it was really cool and almost serene and super peaceful, and you could feel the ambiance yesterday morning,” Craig Smith said.

Among the other highlights of the Utes’ NIT run:

  • Deivon Smith had back-to-back triple-doubles in the wins over Iowa and VCU, breaking the Pac-12 record previously held by Jason Kidd for triple-doubles in a single season.
  • Gabe Madsen scored a career-high 31 points to help Utah beat the Hawkeyes, and he hit 13 3-pointers over that two-game stretch between Iowa and VCU while setting the school record for 3-pointers in a season (he ended the year with 105).
  • Carlson, the South Jordan native, was able to play in front of the home crowd three more times after Senior Night during the NIT. He started the postseason run with a 21-point, 11-rebound game against UC Irvine and averaged 16.8 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in four NIT games while shooting 60% from the field.
Utah Utes center Branden Carlson (35) moves around Indiana State Sycamores guard Xavier Bledson (0) during an NIT semifinal basketball game at the Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis on Tuesday, April 2, 2024. Utah lost 100-90. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Guys like Hunter Erickson, Ben Carlson and Bajema also had solid moments.

Erickson came on strong at the end of the season, including Utah’s two games at the Pac-12 tournament. He averaged 9.5 points over the Utes’ final six games, including 10 on Tuesday, when Erickson also had five assists.

Ben Carlson scored 11 points and made three 3-pointers on Tuesday, as Indiana State’s focus on containing Madsen opened up opportunities for others like Carlson.

Bajema ended his college career with a 14-point effort that included shooting 5 of 8 from the field and 2 of 4 from 3 against the Sycamores.

Madsen said playing in the NIT “was a great experience,” even if it wasn’t their primary goal this year.

“For myself personally, like you said, I did not end the postseason playing the Pac-12 very well so it was nice to get some games in and play a little better,” he said.

“Obviously tonight didn’t go that great either but in retrospect, it was — I’m super glad we did it. Played in this tournament, and just made more memories with this team.”

Craig Smith took his final moments of the last press conference of the season to thank not only NIT personnel but the Utah administration for their support during the postseason.

“It’s been an amazing ride,” he said. “So thank you to ... all the people throughout the season. We were able to reestablish home court and having a great home court and a lot goes into that with our student body and fan base everything and in between.

“... The experiences that you gain and the relationships that you make that last a lifetime, that’s what it’s about, and I’m proud of these guys, how they galvanized and came together, and now we get on the recruiting trail and make it happen.”

Utah Utes guard Gabe Madsen (55) shoots in front of Indiana State Sycamores center Robbie Avila (21) during an NIT semifinal basketball game at the Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis on Tuesday, April 2, 2024. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News