GAME NOTES: Coming off a heart-breaking loss in Tempe, the fourth-ranked Arizona Wildcats seek a quick turnaround, as they continue their current three-game road trip on Wednesday evening against the Utah Utes at the Huntsman Center.
Sean Miller's Wildcats have had a hugely successful campaign thus far, but the team gave up a little bit of ground in the Pac-12 standings over the weekend, dropping a 69-66 2OT affair to rival Arizona State. With the loss, Arizona fell to 10-2 in league play, still atop the conference standings, but by just one game over UCLA.
It has been a tale of two seasons for Larry Krystkowiak's Utes, who have posted 16 of their 17 wins at home this year, with just one defeat at the Huntsman Center, as opposed to its ugly 1-7 mark outside of Salt Lake City. Utah earned its first road win last week at USC, but faltered two days later with Saturday's 80-66 loss at UCLA. The Utes are now 6-7 in the Pac-12, good for seventh place.
Utah is clinging to a 28-26 series lead over Arizona, but the Wildcats have closed the gap with eight straight wins over the Utes, including a 65-56 decision in Tucson on Jan. 26.
Struggling offensively for most of the game, Arizona was simply unable to outlast Arizona State last weekend at Wells Fargo Arena, dropping a three- point decision after two overtimes. The Wildcats shot a mere .359 from the floor and compounded the problem with a 16-of-30 showing from the free-throw line in the loss. T.J. McConnell led the team with 17 points, although he was guilty of six turnovers. Nick Johnson checked in with 14 points, while Aaron Gordon and Kaleb Tarczewski finished with 13 points apiece in the loss.
The Wildcats aren't a flashy offensive team on most nights, but they are usually efficient, shooting .466 from the floor en route to 73.1 ppg. Where the team has dominated is on the defensive end, holding foes to just 57.6 ppg (fourth nationally), on .379 shooting (fifth nationally). The team also boasts a stellar +9.5 rebounding margin. Johnson leads the way offensively with 15.8 ppg. Gordon has delivered as a freshman with 11.8 points and 8.0 rebounds per game. The team lost Brandon Ashley (11.5 ppg) to injury a couple of weeks ago, but there is depth in the form of Tarczewski (9.8 ppg, 6.7 rpg) and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (8.6 ppg, 5.7 rpg). McConnell doesn't add much in terms of scoring (7.9 ppg), but ranks fourth in the conference in assists (5.4 apg).
While Arizona relies on its defensive play, Utah is a much more offensive- minded squad. The Utes are averaging a solid 78.7 ppg, while ranking fifth in the nation in field-goal percentage (.499). Utah also does a solid job on the glass with a +4.2 rebounding margin. Delon Wright, a 6-5 guard, is one of the most versatile playmakers in the conference, leading the team in scoring (16.2 ppg), assists (5.5 apg), steals (2.68 spg) and blocks (33), while ranking second in rebounding (6.8 rpg). Wright is ranked 13th in the nation and first in the Pac-12, shooting a scorching .592 from the floor. Jordan Loveridge can also fill up the basket at 15.6 ppg, and is tops on the team in rebounding (7.6 rpg). Brandon Taylor rounds out the top scoring threats on the roster at 10.8 ppg.
Utah kept things close early on, trailing UCLA by only two points at the half (33-31), but the Bruins turned on the burners over the final 20 minutes, shooting 64.3 percent in the second half to pull away for the 14-point decision. Wright had another strong all-around game, posting 16 points, six rebounds, seven assists and three blocks, but got little help from his teammates. Utah was outrebounded 38-29 and shot a modest 41.8 percent from the floor overall.
Utah is a tough team to beat on its own floor, but there is no longer any room for error for the Wildcats, who will need to once again clamp down defensively, to maintain their positioning atop the league.
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