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.
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