Tyler Rawson hit a three with 40 seconds to go that put Utah up two and lifted the Utes to a 69-64 win over Western Kentucky Tuesday night in the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden.
The Utes will now face the winner of Penn State and Mississippi State for the championship on Thursday. Western Kentucky finishes its season at 27-11 — the program’s most wins in a season since 2007-08.
It was all Hilltoppers to start this one as Justin Johnson scored the first eight points of the game and WKU raced out to a 10-3 lead. The Hilltoppers led 19-11 after the first quarter with Utah going just 5-15 in the first 10 minutes and committing five turnovers.
It wasn’t until Utah went on a 10-0 run midway through the second that the game turned competitive. The two teams went into halftime tied thanks to a Lamonte Bearden dunk at the buzzer.
The second half was even most of the way as well with neither team going ahead by more than four points until the final seconds.
After Rawson’s three, the Hilltoppers had a chance to answer, but Bearden committed an offensive foul and WKU let too much time run off the clock before fouling, sealing their fate.
This caps what’s been a tumultuous, yet ultimately rewarding year for WKU. Of course it all started last year with the endless Mitchell Robinson saga, but once the season started, that was quickly forgotten. The Hilltoppers went to the Battle 4 Atlantis and came home with statement wins over Purdue and SMU. After a quick stumble in the non-conference, they piled up a 14-2 record in Conference USA play to briefly enter that at-large conversation. A pair of losses to Middle Tennessee and UAB to close the regular season ended that hope, but the Hilltoppers still eared a 4 seed in the NIT.
Going forward, WKU loses leaders Johnson and Darius Thompson, but returns important pieces in Bearden, Josh Anderson, and Taveion Hollingsworth. They also have commits from a pair of three-star recruits.