|Saint Mary's hosts Utah in NIT quarters|
There's no doubt Saint Mary's felt jilted when they were left out of the NCAA Tournament.
But now the Gaels (30-5) have embraced their entry into the NIT and after beating Washington 85-81 on Monday are only one win away from earning a trip to New York and Madison Square Garden.
Standing in their way is Utah, (22-11, third place in the Pac-12). The Utes took care of business by defeating LSU 95-71 on Monday.
Next up, Utah heads to Moraga, Calif., for a pivotal meeting against No. 25 Saint Mary's on Wednesday at McKeon Pavilion, where the Gaels are 17-1.
Common themes connect the programs. Naturally, each would rather be in the NCAA Tournament, both are hoping to extend their season for the seniors on their team and each hopes to use the NIT as a springboard for the future.
And both have a healthy respect for one another, especially after having met in a closed scrimmage in Salt Lake City before the start of the season.
"We scrimmaged them this year," Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett said. "I haven't watched them all year but we played them early on and know their personnel. I'm familiar with their program and they are tough, physical and well coached."
According to the Salt Lake Tribune, Utes coach Larry Krystkowiak described his team's performance in the October scrimmage as 30 minutes of "pretty good basketball and 10 minutes of "not so good" play leading to a loss.
When they play this time, the stakes will be much higher.
Krystkowiak said the Gaels probably would be a Sweet 16 team if they had received an NCAA Tournament bid.
"They've got a lot of pieces and a lot of veteran players, and are a well-coached team," Krystkowiak told reporters.
To the Utah coach's point, the Gaels put on a diverse and dangerous offensive dis the Huskies. Jordan Ford led the way with 26 points. Evan Fitzner came off the bench and tossed in 20.
West Coast Conference Player of the Year Jock Landale and Calvin Hermanson each contributed 14 points as the Gaels led by 16 points in the third quarter but had to hang on down the stretch.
Throughout the season, the Gaels leaned on their Big Three -- Landale, Hermanson and guard Emmett Naar, the school's all-time assist leader. But Ford has wedged his way into the mix with solid play. In the two NIT games, he has scored 45 points.
"I think I'm just a lot more confident than I was, I've learned a lot over the past couple years since I have been here. I learned a lot from ... sitting on the sidelines, being able to watch. It taught me a lot."
The Utes also put on an impressive offensive display as they jumped out to an early 30-9 lead and never looked back. Utah shot a blistering 57.9 percent from the field on its way to a season-high 95 points.
Sedrick Barefield led all five starters who scored in double figures with 17. Justin Bibbins added 16 and Gabe Bealer finished with 13. Tyler Rawson and David Collette contributed 12 apiece.
"We seemed to be ready," Krystkowiak said. "We got the ball moving. We played hard. We got out in transition and ran. ... We always try to take advantage of some of the elevation opportunities."
Elevation won't come into play Wednesday. Defense most likely will decide who advances to Tuesday's semifinal game in New York against the winner of the Western Kentucky and Oklahoma State contest.
Saint Mary's gives up 64.4 points per game while Utah's opponents score an average of 68.5.
Krystkowiak has emphasized to his team that good things happen when they play defense.
"When we focus on defense -- and he tells us that -- and he gives us a little trust and freedom on the offensive end, we are real free flowing," Barefield told the Salt Lake Tribune. "On top of that, we execute and we do what he says. It's a great combination of both of those things, and I think it frees our minds up a little bit."
The Utes and Gaels met in a first-round NIT matchup in 2014 in Moraga. Saint Mary's prevailed 70-58.