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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah forward Jayce Johnson, left, competes with Arizona guard Rawle Alkins in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018.

TUCSON, Ariz. — The last time the Utah basketball team defeated the Arizona Wildcats here at McKale Center, none of the current Ute players were alive. Ute coach Larry Krystkowiak had recently completed his collegiate career at Montana and was just starting his professional career with the San Antonio Spurs.

It was more than 30 years ago, Dec. 6, 1986, when the Utah basketball team entered town as big underdogs and came away with a 68-67 victory as Mitch Smith and Jimmy Madison powered the Utes past a Wildcat team led by Sean Elliott.

Since then, the Utes have lost seven straight games here, although they did get wins over the Wildcats at the 1998 NCAA Tournament and in Salt Lake in 2016. The Utes have come close in Tucson, losing by five in 2004, by nine in 2012 and 2014, by three in 2013 and by 10 last year.

The Utes will have a tough task again Saturday afternoon (3:30 p.m., FOX) when they take on the Wildcats in front of an expected sellout crowd at McKale Center. The Wildcats are ranked No. 11 in the country with a 17-4 record. Arizona improved to 7-1 in Pac-12 play with an 80-71 victory over Colorado on Thursday.

The Utes (13-7, 5-4) enter the game on a positive note, having knocked off No. 21-ranked Arizona State Thursday night, 80-77 in overtime. In that game, the Utes got strong play from sophomore center Jayce Johnson, who scored a career-high 15 points off the bench, along with Sedrick Barefield, who scored all 17 of his points in the second half, including a 3-pointer that sent the game into overtime. Also, both Tyler Rawson and Justin Bibbins each contributed 15 points.

When asked after the game if the Utes could put together a similar effort on Saturday, Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak replied with a smile, “Who do we play Saturday?” and added, “I’m just going to enjoy the bus ride and let this one soak in a little bit.”

Krystkowiak knows the Utes will need a strong inside game to keep up with the Wildcats, particularly 7-foot-1 Deandre Ayton, who had 24 points and 14 rebounds against Utah earlier this month. He averages 19.7 points and 10.9 rebounds and is projected to be one of the top picks in the NBA draft this summer, assuming he comes out. Dusan Ristic, a 7-foot senior from Serbia, who averages 10.7 points and 6.6 rebounds per game, is another load inside.

The Ute coach believes his team is better equipped than earlier because of Johnson’s improved play and because forwards Donnie Tillman and Chris Seeley are back to full health. In the earlier Arizona game, Johnson had just two points and two rebounds in 10 minutes.

“Hopefully a couple of more bigger bodies will help us in the rebounding category and bring a little more of a physical presence,” he said.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah forward Donnie Tillman, left, drives on Arizona Wildcats guard Dylan Smith in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018.

The 7-foot, 235-pound Johnson is coming off perhaps his best game as a Ute and Krystkowiak hopes for more of the same Saturday.

“Off the charts,” he said of Johnson’s game Thursday. “He was a tremendous post presence for us. It was not only scoring and shooting free throws, defensively he did a great job getting vertical and making players take tough shots. He stepped up big time, it was great.”

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UTE NOTES: The Utes bussed from Tempe to Tucson right after Thursday's game and practiced Friday afternoon. They couldn't practice at McKale Center because of a gymnastics meet between Utah and Arizona Friday night. ... The Utes have just one game next week, a Friday night contest against Colorado in Boulder. ... David Collette played just 13 minutes Thursday including four in overtime and finished with four points, six rebounds and four assists. ... The Utes shot 43.5 percent for the game Thursday, but were just 29.6 percent in the second half, before making all four of their shots in the overtime. ... The Utes had just two turnovers in the first half, but had 10 in the second half, three in the overtime. ... Rawle Alkins missed Thursday’s game, his second straight, with a sore foot, but might be available according to Arizona coach Sean Miller. ... Alonzo Trier, who scored 23 points against Colorado, leads the Wildcats in scoring at 19.9 points per game. ... In the earlier game, Utah fought back from a 46-32 halftime deficit to tie the game at 77, but was outscored 17-5 over the last 3:45 of the game. ... Against Colorado Thursday night, Arizona won by making 22 of 23 free throws, compared to 5 of 8 for the Buffs. The Wildcats started the game 1 for 11 from the field and were tied 30-30 at halftime, before pulling away in the second half.

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