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Runnin’ Utes fade in the final 10 minutes, lose ‘great opportunity’ to upset No. 6 Arizona

Utah loses its fifth-straight game, but not before throwing a mild scare into the nationally ranked Wildcats in front of a large crowd at the McKale Center

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Arizona guard Dalen Terry (4) finishes off his steal with a dunk against Utah

Arizona guard Dalen Terry (4) finishes off his steal with a dunk against Utah in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Tucson, Ariz., Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022. (Kelly Presnell/Arizona Daily Star via AP)

Kelly Presnell/Arizona Daily Star via AP

For a little more than 27 minutes of game action on Saturday night, shorthanded Utah was throwing a mighty scare at Arizona on the No. 6 Wildcats’ home court.

Aside from a few stretches here and there, Utah was controlling the pace, slowing down the tempo and frustrating the second-highest scoring team in the country with its deliberate play.

Then the Runnin’ Utes’ most glaring weakness — an absolute lack of frontcourt depth in the absence of star center Branden Carlson — caught up to them, and Arizona began proving why it is considered one of the most improved teams in the country under first-year head coach Tommy Lloyd, the former Gonzaga assistant.

Lithuanian Azuolas Tubelis, having his way inside almost the entire night, scored a career-high 32 points on 14 of 24 shooting and the Wildcats scored a whopping 56 points in the paint to run past the Utes 82-64 in front of an announced crowd of 14,164 at the McKale Center in Tucson, Arizona.

“They are an elite team, ranked No. 6 in the country for a reason, have a ton of weapons. As good as they are on offense, they are equally as good, or maybe even more impressive, on the defensive end, when you look at all the numbers. Certainly we felt that tonight.” — Utah basketball coach Craig Smith.

Utah (8-9, 1-6) dropped below .500 for the first time this season in losing its fifth-straight game, and continues its rugged stretch Monday afternoon against Arizona State in Tempe before returning home next week to host nationally ranked UCLA and USC.

In other words, things could get worse before they get better.

“They are an elite team, ranked No. 6 in the country for a reason, have a ton of weapons,” Utah coach Craig Smith told reporters of the Wildcats via Zoom after the game.

“As good as they are on offense, they are equally as good, or maybe even more impressive, on the defensive end, when you look at all the numbers. Certainly we felt that tonight.”

The Wildcats felt some of Utah’s potential as well in staying atop the Pac-12 standings with a 4-0 league mark and improving to 14-1 overall.

Utah had a couple of six-point leads in the first half and eventually forced 16 turnovers as Arizona played without starting guard Kerr Kriisa, whom Lloyd said got hurt “horsing around” in pregame warmups.

“I thought we played really, really well in the first half and early in the second half,” Smith said. Unfortunately for the Utes, that last 12 minutes happened.

When Both Gach hit a runner in the lane with 12:24 remaining in the second half, Utah had trimmed a nine-point deficit to one, 46-45, and Arizona was on upset alert.

Naturally, the Wildcats woke up in a big way. Seemingly toying with the Utes to that point but unable to make that dominance show on the scoreboard, Arizona suddenly regained its interest and went on a 21-0 run to win going away.

During that stretch, the Utes went seven minutes and 27 seconds without scoring.

Ball game.

“Some things started to get away from us, obviously,” Smith said of that stretch. “We went on that big scoring drought and had just too many turnovers. Twenty turnovers on the road — you guys have heard that before — (won’t bring wins), to nine assists.”

Arizona went from shooting 42% in the first half to 59% in the second half, scoring on a ridiculously high number of dunks and layups. 

At times, it looked like a layup drill — not a Ute in sight at the basket.

“The best teams have big-time spurt-ability, where in a matter of three minutes, four minutes, I mean, they can go on a 10-0 run just like that,” Smith said, snapping his fingers. “And that can be the difference in a game.”

Utah’s pick-and-roll defense was decent early, but started to lose traction with about six minutes remaining in the first half, and then just had an all-out meltdown in the second half.

Christian Koloko added 16 points on 7 of 7 shooting for the Wildcats, and leading scorer and Pac-12 player of the year candidate Bennedict Mathurin was “held” to 11.

After going 1 of 12 from 3-point range in the first half, the Wildcats seemed to realize that the 7-foot Carlson was sitting on the bench, and not in the game, and began attacking the rim relentlessly in the second half.

Utah had no answer, as big men Riley Battin, Lahat Thioune and Illinois State transfer Dusan Mahorcic simply ran out of gas.

Frustration reigned. Fatigue was evident.

“I thought they wore us down,” Smith said. “They have elite size at the four and five spots, but their guards are big, strong and athletic as well.

“They wore us down, really hurt us with some high-low stuff where they got some chip shots right at the rim. We knew that could be an issue for us.”

Utah shot 41% and stayed reasonably close by going 6 of 16 from 3-point range. Utah scored just 28 points in the paint, though, getting doubled up on that stat by the talent and size-rich Wildcats.

“We gave up 56 points in the paint, so that is very, very difficult to overcome,” Smith said.

Mahorcic, who had 10 points on 5 of 13 shooting — several of those attempts were swatted — said Utah had too many breakdowns defending the pick-and-roll.

“We weren’t doing our help-side defense like we are supposed to do, and that’s where they got most of their points,” he said.


Help could be on the way. Pac-12 Network analyst Don McLean said he talked to Carlson before the game, and Carlson said he expects to be back some time next week — a return that could be earlier than expected.

For positives, the Runnin’ Utes will always have those first 27 minutes. Certainly, they showed some flashes of brilliance, and that they are capable of hanging with one of the top teams in the country if a couple breaks go their way. Carlson’s return will help.

“I thought we did some great things. I thought we got better this week. I thought we got better tonight in a very difficult environment, a hostile environment to play in,” Smith said.

“I am not into moral victories. We had a great opportunity tonight and gave ourselves some chances there, but obviously could not finish the deal.”

Utah had fantastic energy early. Gabe Madsen stepped off the bench to hit a couple 3-pointers and Marco Anthony went 3 of 5 for seven points early.

Utah led 24-18 after Gach made an inside basket, but a couple of fastbreak buckets by the Wildcats, including one when former Ute Pelle Larsson went the distance for a 3-point play, cut into that lead.

Arizona led by six late in the first half, but Madsen’s second triple made the score 34-31 heading into halftime.

In the end, however, the Utes just didn’t have enough firepower — at either end of the floor.

Utah has now lost nine of last 12 games, but Mahorcic said nobody is losing hope.

“We’re keeping it positive,” the Serbian said.

Added Smith: “We are in the midst of the hardest stretch of our season, there’s no doubt about it.”