TUCSON, Ariz. — It hardly mattered that the Utah basketball team outshot Arizona from the field, from 3-point range and from the free-throw line. Nor was it significant that the Utes had more steals and blocked shots and grabbed the same number of defensive rebounds.
One statistic stood out above all others and was perhaps the reason Utah wasn't able to pull off a big upset over the No. 1 team in the country Sunday night before a sold-out McKale Center crowd.
Arizona had 20 offensive rebounds, a huge number in a basketball game, and all those second chances proved to be too much for the Utes to overcome in a 65-56 Arizona victory.
“It was a whuppin’ when it came to the boards for sure,’’ said Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak. “That was the first thing we put on our board before the game, but it’s just a lot easier said than done. We just couldn’t match their physicality. They pounded us.’’
With the loss the Utes fell to 14-6 on the season and 3-5 in Pac-12 play, while the Wildcats improved to 20-0 for the first time in school history and will certainly retain their No. 1 ranking for another week.
The Utes came out strong and played the Wildcats toe-to-toe throughout the first half and for much of the second half. However, a 14-2 run after the Utes had taken a lead midway through the second half proved to be the Utes' undoing.
Krystkowiak acknowledged that the Wildcats wore his Utes down, comparing the contest to a football game when a team runs the ball and “they grind you and grind you” and “eventually the the defense gets tired of being on the field at the end of the game.’’
But he was also disappointed with the way some of his players tried to play the hero’s role and got away from the Ute offense when a two-point lead turned into a 10-point deficit.
“We had a couple of turnovers. Jordan (Loveridge) tried to force a shot and had it blocked. Dallin (Bachynski) took a shot he hasn’t taken all year. ... People just seemed to try to come up with their own plan.’’
Delon Wright led the Utes with 19 points and had three steals that turned into baskets, while Loveridge had 13 points and Dakarai Tucker 10. Bachynski grabbed 10 rebounds and had three blocked shots.
Arizona was led by junior guard Nick Johnson, who Krystkowiak said is the favorite for league player of the year at this point. Johnson scored 22 points and made several key baskets down the stretch to give the Wildcats some breathing room.
The Utes took a 47-45 lead on a 3-pointer by freshman Kenneth Ogbe with 11:04 left, only to have Johnson sink a jumper at the other end to tie the score.
After a follow dunk by Aaron Gordon gave the Wildcats the lead for good, it was Johnson again with a jumper in the lane. Wright broke a nearly five-minute drought with a drive to cut Arizona's lead to four, but Johnson came back with two more baskets, a baseline drive for a dunk and another jumper, to push the lead to 59-49 with 3:53 left.
“He’s a big-time player,’’ said Krystkowiak. “He’s the guy they go to and he stepped up to the plate and made some big plays. We didn’t have an answer for him.’’
Besides Johnson, Arizona's highly touted freshman, Aaron Gordon, had 10 points and 12 rebounds, although he struggled from the field with 3-of-13 shooting. Bradon Ashley scored 11 points and had seven rebounds and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson had 10 points and seven rebounds.
The Utes got off to quick start, scoring the first seven points of the game and taking a quick 12-2 lead. They opened in a two-three zone that seemed to discombobulate Arizona, which made only 2 of its first 13 shots. However, the Utes couldn’t capitalize on their fast start and went more than five minutes without scoring as the Wildcats reeled off 12 straight points.
Utah settled down and re-took the lead at 22-19, but Arizona came back to lead 29-26 before the Utes seemingly had the final shot. However, after Tucker’s 3-pointer missed, Arizona came down and scored at the buzzer on a follow dunk by Kaleb Tarczewski.
Although this wasn’t another loss by less than four points as the previous five losses were, Krystkowiak says the Utes are hanging in there.
“It’s getting a little disheartening, but there’s a lot of positive signs,’’ he said. “Nobody’s interested in the sob stories about losing close games and 'coulda, shoulda, woulda.' All that fragile stuff is out the window. We’ve got a group of kids that’s turning into men and hopefully we’ll learn from what we’ve gone through up to this point.’’