UA upends Utes
Despite retaining its No. 1 ranking, Arizona didn’t leave McKale Center on Sunday night as its usual pristine self.
During much of the Wildcats’ (20-0, 7-0 Pac-12) 65-56 win over Utah (14-6, 3-5), Arizona didn’t shoot the ball well and didn’t appear to be the best team in the country.
An early shooting percentage below 20 percent put the Wildcats in a 10-point hole before anyone could even sit down.
“They threw different defensive schemes at us,” junior guard Nick Johnson said. “We didn’t know what they were running, man or zone; it caught us off guard early.”
For the first 10 minutes, nearly everything was going in Utah’s favor. With each shot attempt and every made basket for Utah, the tension in the sold-out arena intensified. The title of No. 1 that Arizona fans so greatly cherished seemed to be slipping away with every ugly moment.
The one bright spot keeping it close was rough and scrappy rebounding — the Wildcats outrebounded Utah 40-29.
But early on, even the second chance attempts weren’t all going in for the top-ranked Wildcats.
“We constantly dominated the glass,” Arizona head coach Sean Miller said. “That’s why we won.”
The Wildcats got plenty of second-chance opportunities, and finished the game with 20 offensive rebounds — 12 combined by freshmen Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Aaron Gordon.
While the chances were there, Arizona didn’t pull away because of the poor early shooting percentage from the challenging defenses.
“We anticipated that type of game — Utah plays us differently,” Miller said. “[Utah’s defense] ran a triangle two, a 2-3 zone and a man-man, switch[ed] every screen to man to man, showed 2-3 zone but switched to man to man, showed man to man and switched to a 2-3 zone.
“They don’t necessarily always do that, and we prepared for that, but I think playing against it and seeing it are two completely different types of things,” Miller added.
Most teams dig themselves out of holes with 3-pointers, but Arizona only made three of its 14 attempts. So after falling behind by 10 it was the Wildcats’ physicality and toughness on the boards and in transition that finally carried them to victory.
“[Arizona] just grinds you and grinds you and grinds you,” Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak said after the game, “and eventually the defense gets tired of being on the field at the end of the game.”
The wear was apparent. The Wildcats finally started to seize second-chance opportunities and the pace of the game was to Arizona’s liking.
“We’re best when we’re on the run and in transition,” said Johnson, who finished with a game-high 22 points, “and the best way to do that is off defensive rebounds.”
Led by its effort on the glass, Arizona finished off the Utes with a late 14-2 run that gave the Wildcats their first 20-game win streak in nearly a century.
“We were star-struck at the beginning with the way that they chose to play us,” Miller said. “It had us off balance. But eventually we got back to really good defense and offense, which was centered on offensive rebounds.”
—Follow Luke Della @LukeDella