TUCSON-In the most anticipated matchup of this early Pac-12 season the Arizona Wildcats (16-2, 4-1) started slow in front of the usual sellout crowd of 14,655 at McKale Center before quickly rallying to beat a talented Utah Utes (14-3, 4-1) squad 69-51 Saturday evening.
Below are five things we learned in the big win for the Wildcats.
1. Boarding School…seeing is believing when it comes to UofA’s work on the glass. They entered the game second in the conference with a +7 rebounding margin and the trend continued against the Utes. Sean Miller’s team held an 18-9 edge at the half (eight offensive) and finished with a lopsided 40-19 advantage (17 offensive). “They’re a talented team,” forward Brandon Ashley said after the game. “They’re big, they’re strong. When we really focus on hitting the boards it’s something we can do well.” Arizona is 13-0 this season and 109-20 under Miller when they out-rebound their opponent.
2. T.J. Came to Play…after the ‘Cats stumbled out of the blocks, trailing 10-2 at the first media timeout, T.J. McConnell almost single-handedly brought UofA back with his effort on both ends of the floor. The senior from Pittsburgh led all scorers at halftime with 12 points on 6-7 shooting and set up bigs Kaleb Tarczewski and Ashley for good looks inside. His final line included 16 points, a team-high six assists and three rebounds. “He played [great] for 40 minutes,” Miller said of McConnell. “We really needed him in the first half. We know he can really shoot the basketball and he knows that, as well. I can make the argument no player who we’ve brought [to UofA] has been more instrumental in winning than him.”
3. Defend the Trend…the Wildcats have now gone a jaw-dropping 63-consecutive games without allowing an opponent to score 80 points. Miller’s defense swarmed and confused Utah’s efficient offense which was averaging a shade under 76 points per game and shooting over 50% from the field. They were faster to nearly every loose ball and clearly played with a greater sense of urgency. The calling card will have to continue as the season plays out as Arizona has shown they will go cold both from the field and at the free throw line.
4. Not How Stan Planned…safe to assume Stanley Johnson never had a halftime stat line like Saturday: zero points, zero rebounds, zero assists, two fouls. Well, whatever sports drink Johnson consumed during the 15-minute intermission worked. The talented freshman from Fullerton was a monster in the final 20 minutes finishing with a team-high 18 points, a game-high nine rebounds and two steals. “It all starts with defense for me…you got to keep your mind in the game,” Johnson explained. “In the second half I felt like I could take advantage of some things and that’s what I did.” When he ramped up his offensive aggression Arizona essentially put the game out of reach early in the second half.
5. Wright Amendment…you could make the argument there isn’t a more talented all-around player than senior Delon Wright who, much like Johnson, experienced a tale of two halves. After starting fast scoring nine first-half points, the versatile 6’5 performer finished with only 10. “We have a lot of different types of defenders who can guard him…it’s about team defense, not one player, Miller said afterwards. “You have to do it as a group because they move the ball and execute so well. He’s one of the best players in college basketball.” Wright finished with a game-high seven assists but committed more turnovers (four) than McConnell and Johnson combined (three). “Defensively, the made it real tough for me,” Wright said after being held seven points below his road average.