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Mar 19, 2024 12:30 am

Utah ready to go again vs. UC Irvine in NIT

branden carlson

UC Irvine and Utah will meet in an NIT first-round game at Salt Lake City on Tuesday after both came up short attaining a spot in the NCAA Tournament because of losses in their respective conference tournaments.

UC Irvine (24-9) was upset as the No. 1 seed of the Big West tournament, falling to No. 4 Long Beach State in the semifinal. The Anteaters won the Big West regular-season title with a record of 17-3.

Utah (19-14) was the sixth seed in the Pac-12 tournament and likely needed to run the table to achieve an NCAA Tournament bid. However, the Utes lost in the quarterfinals to No. 3 Colorado.

The Utes’ NCAA Tournament drought has reached eight years with the last appearance coming in the 2015-16 season when Larry Krystkowiak was coach.

Craig Smith is completing his third season as Utah’s coach. This is the first time the Utes will be in the postseason under him.

“At the end of the day, not playing in the NCAA Tournament is hard,” said Smith, who is 47-49 at Utah after going 74-24 in three seasons at Utah State, advancing to the NCAA Tournament each year.

Smith believes his team welcomes the idea of playing in the NIT following their 72-58 defeat against Colorado in the Pac-12 tournament.

“These guys love to play, and they love to compete,” he said.

Utah’s leading scorer and rebounder Branden Carlson (17.1 points, 6.8 rebounds a game) is expected to play despite nursing a sore elbow. He wore a brace on the elbow during the Pac-12 tournament.

UC Irvine is a balanced team with two players averaging double-figure scoring — Justin Hohn (12.7 points a game) and Andre Henry (10.6).

The Anteaters won six of their last seven games in the regular season before losing 83-79 to Long Beach State, which was playing for a coach, Dan Monson, who was fired earlier in the week but continued lead the squad in the tournament. Monson guided the 49ers all the way to the Big West championship.

“They were better than we were, it’s not that they wanted it more or we were afraid,” UC Irvine coach Russell Turner said. “We didn’t defend like we usually do. We didn’t make our free throws (10 of 19), and we weren’t good enough on the glass against a good rebounding team like Long Beach (allowing 11 offensive rebounds that led to 15 second-chance points).”

–Field Level Media

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