The Arizona men’s basketball team fell to Utah Thursday, Feb. 4 by a score of 73-58 in Salt Lake City, Utah. It was easily the worst team performance of the season on both sides of the ball, and head coach Sean Miller did not hold back in the press conference following the game.
“They kicked our butt,” Miller said.
Arizona was looking to carry the momentum from the previous game when they defeated Cal by 21 points at home, and it was a back-and-forth, exciting start between the Wildcats and Utes that saw Arizona hold a 26-23 lead heading into the final media timeout of the first half with 3:04 remaining. It was at that point when everything went downhill for the Wildcats as the Utes went on a 9-1 run to finish the first half and take a 32-27 lead heading into halftime. Utah kept that momentum early in the second half, going on a 14-4 run five minutes into the half to take a 46-31 lead.
“I think they beat us 9-1 going into halftime, and then coming out of halftime, they really did the same thing to us,” Miller said. “From that point, we were just playing uphill, but I credit Utah. And if our team isn’t a hard-playing, together group, we don’t have any room for error.”
Azuolas Tubelis led the Wildcats with 17 points on 5-8 shooting from the field and 7-8 from the free throw line to go along with seven rebounds, but he was clearly not pleased with the team’s performance following the game.
“We need to play defense,” Tubelis said. “There’s no excuses. We need to get better and get ready for our next game.”
The Wildcats backcourt of James Akinjo, Terrell Brown Jr. and Bennedict Mathurin struggled all night, combining to shoot 6-26 from the field. Akinjo was the only other Arizona player outside of Tubelis to reach double-digit points, and he reached that mark on a garbage time, three with less than 10 seconds left when the game was already out of reach.
Akinjo did not hit his first field goal until there was 11:47 left in the game, that being a three-pointer which was the only other three the Wildcats hit all night, shooting 2-9 from behind the arc as a team compared to the Utes shooting 8-15 in that same area. Utah seemed to get off any shot they wanted in the second half.
“I think we have been moving in a better direction, but we took a giant step backwards here tonight,” Miller said of his team's defensive performance. “You know playing defense on the road, playing against a disciplined, well-coached team, Utah had a ton of confidence coming off of their road win against Colorado.”
The Wildcats went on a 9-0 run in the middle of the second half to cut the deficit to 51-42 at that point, but Utah quickly answered that with a 9-2 run of their own to take a 60-44 lead with just under nine minutes left to play. The two teams went back-and-forth the rest of the way for the most part, though the Wildcats did cut the deficit to 10 points with just over three minutes left to play, but Utah seemed to have an answer to every Arizona run on the evening.
The Utes played with the physicality that Arizona hasn’t faced too often this season, as both teams finished with the same number of rebounds, an area the Wildcats tend to have the advantage in. Junior forward Timmy Allen led the way with 18 points and nine rebounds, but they got great balance in scoring from the whole team with five different players scoring double-digit points. Something the Wildcats have had most of the season is balance in scoring, but that was not the case Thursday night.
"I thought their team was very, very prepared tonight," Miller said. "They were prepared for us with their defense. They were prepared with their attack against our defense, and we didn't have many answers."
Arizona did get the much-anticipated debut of freshman guard Kerr Kriisa, who wore the number 25 with his first name, “Kerr” on the back of his jersey, reminiscent of former Wildcat and current Golden State Warrior head coach Steve Kerr.
Kriisa played 19 minutes off the bench but did not factor too much into the game going just 0-2 from the field with two assists and one steal. Kriisa, who checked in after the first media timeout, seemed a little hesitant to shoot early on but had a couple of nice passes that led to easy shots for Jordan Brown and Ira Lee just a few minutes into his debut.
“He brought the energy, but still, it’s his first game, and he’ll be better,” Tubelis said.
The presence of Kriisa allowed Akinjo and Brown to get more rest than usual, as he offered the ability to bring the ball up the court, something the Wildcats have been lacking for a while ever since they lost Jemarl Baker Jr. early last month.
“I think [Kriisa] was nothing but a bonus,” Miller said. “I mean the fact that we were able to rest Terrell Brown and James Akinjo, those guys need rest.”
This is going to be a game Arizona will want to put behind them as they now head out to Boulder to take on Colorado. The Wildcats got the best of the Buffaloes last time these two teams faced off, but that was back in December and a lot has changed for both teams since that game. The tip-off for this game is scheduled for 6:00 MST on Saturday and will be aired on FS1.
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