Bleeding Red: Runnin’ Utes ready for another NIT championship

They’ll do it again like they’ve done it before
Yes, the Runnin’ Utes are in the Final Four
The Red Rocks keep trading with UCLA
Here’s hoping Utah has the last word to say

COMMENTARY – The Runnin’ Utes have made the NIT Final Four for the fourth time in school history. They won it all in 1947. Flip the last two digits and Utah made it back to the NIT championship game in 1974, but came up short against Purdue. In 1992 the Runnin’ Utes fell in the semifinal to Notre Dame, but beat Florida for third place. It appears to be time for Utah to bookend its NIT Final Four appearances with another championship.

utesThe Runnin’ Utes are the only two-seed in the Final Four and the highest seed left in the NIT. Western Kentucky, Penn State, and Mississippi State are all four-seeds. Utah has already beaten a seven-seed in UC Davis, a three-seed in LSU, and one-seed in Saint Mary’s. Two more wins over four-seeds and they will have the golden ring and the championship trophy firmly in their hands.

The Runnin’ Utes take on the Hilltoppers in Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, with a tip-off at 5 p.m. Mountain Time. This will be the first time the two schools have ever met on the hardwood court.

Photo courtesy Utah Athletics

Defense continues to be a key factor for Utah. The Runnin’ Utes consistently held teams below their average score throughout the season and have continued to do so in the NIT. Both LSU and Saint Mary’s (even with the benefit of an overtime period) posted their lowest scores of the tournament in their losses to the Runnin’ Utes.

Western Kentucky has averaged nearly 79 points a game over the course of the season, upping that to more than 83 points a game in the NIT (with 79 being their lowest score of the tournament). The Hilltoppers have a very balanced attack, with all five starters averaging double-digits. That will need to change on Tuesday night if Utah expects to win. The tipping point appears to be 74 points —in games in which the opponent scored at least 74 points, Utah is 3-9, and the Runnin’ Utes are 19-2 in games in which the opponent scored less than 74 points.

If Utah can get by Western Kentucky on Tuesday, then it will face the winner of Penn State and Mississippi State in the championship game on Thursday, again with a 5 p.m. Mountain Time tip.

Meanwhile, the Red Rocks are embarking on their own postseason title run.

MyKayla Skinner at the Pac-12 Championships | Photo courtesy Deena Lofgren, Utah Athletics

Utah had a near miss in the Pac-12 Championships, coming in second a mere 0.150 points behind champion UCLA. Ironically, it was the Red Rocks’ floor performance (typically one of their strengths) that cost them the title. Nevertheless, MyKayla Skinner came up big on floor, winning the event for the second year in a row, and she also took home her second consecutive all-around title. MaKenna Merrell-Giles won the vault.

Utah and UCLA have been pushing each other all season long. The Bruins topped the Red Rocks in quad-meet in Reno the second meet of the season. Utah returned the favor by eking out a win over UCLA in Los Angeles in mid-February. The seesaw battle tipped back in favor of the Bruins at the Pac-12 Championships. These two squads are destined to meet again at Nationals in St. Louis and may possibly meet again in the regionals in the Huntsman Center on Saturday, April 7 (otherwise, the closest regional for UCLA would be in Minneapolis). Regional pairings will be announced today at 2 p.m. Mountain Time.

Here’s hoping the Runnin’ Utes win it all in the NIT in Madison Square Garden this week, and the Red Rocks get ready to roll to a championship themselves.

Bleeding Red is a sports column written by Dwayne Vance. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. George News.

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Twitter: @oldschoolag

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

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