When the Arizona Wildcats landed in Salt Lake City for a Pac-12 rematch against the Utah Utes, it was no secret that they’d been playing their worst basketball of the season.
Poor shooting from the foul line and behind the arc, coupled with a “missing in action” bench (zero points in a recent loss to Arizona State), cost the fourth-ranked Wildcats two out of their previous four ballgames after starting the season 21-0.
Frankly, they looked almost nothing like the squad that took down the Michigan Wolverines in Ann Arbor last December behind 40 percent three-point shooting and 93 percent shooting from the free-throw line.
Obviously, the Arizona faithful hoped that the Michigan version of their squad showed up against Utah, who held the Wildcats to only 21.4 percent from behind the arc in their first meeting in Tucson several weeks ago. Not to mention Arizona only shot 60.9 percent from the free-throw line that night despite a nine-point win.
These are recurring problems that have recently cost them games in addition to a production void left by injured forward Brandon Ashley.
The Utes, on the other hand, looked to cash in on Arizona’s recent inconsistencies in Salt Lake City behind junior guard Delon Wright (16.2 points, 6.8 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game this season) and gain some ground in the conference standings.
If the Pac-12 tournament started right now, the Utes would be a No. 7 seed, which pits them against the 10th-seeded Oregon Ducks and sets them on a collision course for a matchup with the conference’s second-seeded UCLA Bruins.
That’s a tough road to the NCAA tournament.
Obviously, a win against the Wildcats would do dividends for Utah’s tournament resume. Unfortunately, Utah basketball points out that history is working against them despite some strange historical coincidences:
Utah has not defeated Arizona since the 1998 Regional Final - the Wildcats were defending national champion and also ranked No. 4 then!— Utah Basketball (@Runnin_Utes) February 20, 2014
1998 was a long time ago, folks.
However, the Utes play great at home according to Utah Basketball:
The Utes have won 16 of their 17 games this season at home and are beating teams by an average of 23 points per contest— Utah Basketball (@Runnin_Utes) February 20, 2014
An “intimidating atmosphere,” as UteZone.com’s Alex Markham put it, couldn’t hurt their chances either:
Despite the atmosphere, Arizona didn’t miss a shot until almost seven minutes into the game.
Both teams traded baskets until an early dunk from Utah’s Princeton Onwas had the Jon M. Huntsman Center buzzing:
That's levitation homes - Princeton Onwas with the monster dunk and Bachynski with the huge block at the other end! The MUSS is jumpin'!— Utah Basketball (@Runnin_Utes) February 20, 2014
With Ashley injured, most defenses will key on Aaron Gordon going forward.
To put it lightly, he had a rough start to the game. Anthony Gimino, formerly of the Arizona Daily Star and Tucson Citizen, expects defenses to force him to shoot the ball:
Tough for Aaron Gordon to drive when defenders can wait in the lane for him, not respecting his shot.— Anthony Gimino (@AGWildcatReport) February 20, 2014
Gordon got into foul trouble quickly and took an early seat on the bench. Eleven minutes into the first half, he had one point, one rebound, three turnovers and two fouls (finished with three points, two assists, three rebounds and five turnovers).
Not ideal for Arizona.
However, Gabe York and Matt Korcheck picked up the slack, sparking the Wildcats to a 12-0 run, according to Jason Scheer of WildcatAuthority.com:
Arizona on a 12-0 run that includes baskets from Gabe York and Matt Korcheck— Jason Scheer (@JasonScheer) February 20, 2014
Dallin Bachynski, brother of Arizona State’s Jordan Bachynski (recorded 13 points, eight blocks and seven rebounds in a win against the Wildcats a week ago), kept the Utes in the game with eight points and four rebounds at one point:
Bachynski keeping Utah in the game w/8 points but they trail, 35-24. Arizona shooting 59% from the floor, Gabe York 4-4, 10 points— Utah Basketball (@Runnin_Utes) February 20, 2014
But it was Arizona’s York who stole the show in the first 20 minutes with 10 points on 4-of-4 shooting. Goazcats.com’s Tracy McDannald reflected on the influence he has on his squad:
When Gabe York is on, he gives the #ArizonaWildcats the balance they need as a shooter. Starting him may not be such a bad idea.— Tracy McDannald (@TracyGOAZCATS) February 20, 2014
The Utes were lucky to be down only 35-26 at the half because Arizona’s Jordin Mayes sunk a three at the halftime buzzer that was almost too close to call.
Nevertheless, KMSB Fox-11’s David Kelly was pleased with Arizona’s first-half effort:
Utah looked to gain ground on the Wildcats at the beginning of the second half but couldn’t gain much traction despite solid defense:
Utah has clamped down defensively this half, holding UA under 40% from the field,but haven't been able to gain any ground, trailing 46-36— Utah Basketball (@Runnin_Utes) February 20, 2014
Then, their grinding and hustling finally paid off:
8-0 run thanks to Fields, Olsen and Ogbe has pulled Utah within 4, 46-42 - Arizona takes a timeout with 10:08 in regulation— Utah Basketball (@Runnin_Utes) February 20, 2014
The tide was turning in Salt Lake City, the momentum was in favor of the Utes and, to make matters worse for Arizona, Gordon fouled out of the game with eight minutes left.
Yahoo! Sports’ Brad Evans summed it up best:
Utah within four of Arizona. Just over 8 minutes to go. Aaron Gordon just fouled out. One of those nights. No team is safe.— Brad Evans (@YahooNoise) February 20, 2014
As they say, opportunity was knocking for the Utes.
Nevertheless, the Wildcats continued to find answers to Utah. Kaleb Tarczewski (eight points, 10 rebounds and three blocks) came up huge for Arizona in the second half and was a beast inside, according to Anthony Gimino:
Kaleb Tarzewski steps through, steps under -- great move -- and misses layup. He grabs rebound and then scores.— Anthony Gimino (@AGWildcatReport) January 17, 2014
With under five minutes to play, Utah cut the lead to 52-51 behind a Bachynski offensive rebound that led to a huge Brandon Taylor three-pointer. That rainbow jumper capped off a 7-0 Utah run, according to ESPN's Bill Riley:
Utah’s Jordan Loveridge was quiet all game until the final three minutes where he sank two free throws as well as a lead-changing floater in the lane.
Regardless, Arizona wasn’t going anywhere. Thanks to a Nick Johnson pull-up jumper late in the second half, it took back the lead 56-55.
Jordan Loveridge and Nick Johnson going back-and-forth here down the stretch! UA ball up 1, with 1:31 to play, and it takes a timeout— Utah Basketball (@Runnin_Utes) February 20, 2014
This game had “buzzer-beater” written all over it.
With 28 seconds left, Loveridge split a set of free throws to tie the game at 56, and the ball was in Arizona’s court.
Johnson would get the call for the final shot, but tough defense from the Utes forced him to call a timeout with three seconds left.
T.J. McConnell would get the call after the break, but he failed to convert at the buzzer:
Headed to overtime in Salt Lake City. All tied up 56-56. #AZvsUtah— Arizona Basketball (@APlayersProgram) February 20, 2014
With no Gordon in the lineup, Arizona would continue to rely on its role players for contributions.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson set the tone for the Wildcats in overtime by pounding the offensive glass and earning putbacks and trips to the foul line. He was fierce in the paint and finished with 13 points and four rebounds.
To put it simply, Arizona looked like it wanted it more during overtime. Taylor, an 86 percent free-throw shooter, had an opportunity to take the lead at the foul line, but he clanked three straight foul shots.
Jimmy Soto, a radio color analyst for the Utes, shed light on Utah's free-throw totals late in the game:
The Utes took several contested three-point jumpers and looked hesitant toward the end of overtime. In other words, Arizona’s defensive pressure was starting to take a toll on Utah:
#Utes last FG on OT 3 minutes ago— Jimmy Soto (@jimmysoto15) February 20, 2014
Somehow or another, Utah was still within two with five seconds left and had a chance to cut it to one before Taylor missed another free throw. And like clockwork, Johnson sealed the deal on the other end after a desperation foul from Utah.
All in all, it wasn’t the Wildcats who shot the ball poorly from the foul line and the three-point line.
It was Utah.
Utah failed to make shots and free throws down the stretch. Nine missed free throws is enough to keep anyone up at night, but the way the Utes played in overtime at home is enough to cause nightmares for a week. Their turnovers in overtime lost them the game.
Wright's sixth turnover pretty much sealed the deal for the Wildcats, who won 67-63.
Arizona didn’t win this game—Utah lost it. Arizona struggled with Utah’s size inside and looked shaky for stretches, turning the ball over 13 times. The Wildcats lost the battle on the boards, 37-31, and their bench is still suspect even though Hollis-Jefferson had a solid outing.
Once again, they relied on their defense late in the game rather than their sporadic offense.
Like Zach Clark of ESPNTucson.com implies, for the fourth-ranked team in the country, there sure are a lot of questions surrounding their supremacy:
This Arizona Wildcats team is like 'Lost' or 'Heroes'... I'm left with more questions than answers.— Zach Clark (@ZachEClark) February 20, 2014
Questions or not, they continue to win games.
And that's all that matters.