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‘Like the Lakers of the 80s’: How No. 2 Arizona schooled Runnin’ Utes in 97-77 blowout at Huntsman Center

Led by Kerr Kriisa’s triple-double, the first for Arizona since Andre Iguodala in 2004, Wildcats pummel Utes to clinch at least a piece of the Pac-12 championship

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Arizona Wildcats forward Azuolas Tubelis, wearing white, dunks over Utah Utes guard Rollie Worster

Arizona Wildcats forward Azuolas Tubelis (10) dunks over Utah Utes guard Rollie Worster (25) in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Utah basketball coach Craig Smith said after witnessing a college basketball clinic at the Huntsman Center Thursday night put on by the No. 2 Arizona Wildcats that the visitors are the type of team that the Runnin’ Utes aspire to be.

The first-year coach stopped short of saying where Utah is on that ladder to hoped-for greatness, but the Utes displayed enough signs in front of an announced crowd of 8,263 fans that his rebuilding effort is off to an acceptable start.

The Wildcats won easily, but the Utes made them work for it, if that makes sense in a 20-point blowout.

“When they get out, I mean their spurtability is incredible. They are kinda like the Lakers of the ‘80s, where they get out in transition, or start getting turnovers, and they start getting dunks and dunks and they get energy off of that.” — Utah basketball coach Craig Smith on Arizona.

Arizona point guard Kerr Kriisa recorded the Wildcats’ first triple-double since Andre Iguodala in 2004 and Azuolas Tubelis added 23 points in a 97-77 romp in Salt Lake City that clinched at least a tie for the Pac-12 championship for the visitors.

“They are a great team,” Smith said. “It is definitely a legitimate team that can win it all, and they got it all. It is where we want to go. We are not there yet, obviously, right now. But that’s what we are aspiring to be.”

The Utes (11-17, 4-14) had their modest two-game winning streak snapped, but their confidence remains intact, Smith said, crediting his club for scrapping to the bitter end when it could have rolled over and absorbed a 30-35 point loss.

“Obviously a tough night for us,” he said. “But I thought we did some good things, just obviously not enough. You play a team like this, they are ranked No. 2 in the country for a reason. They do it all.”

Utah fell behind 8-0 early, scratched back to take a one-point lead with about six minutes left in the half, then watched almost helplessly as Kriisa took over with a torrid shooting display rarely seen at the Huntsman Center the past decade.

The Estonian made six 3-pointers in a six-minute stretch, capping the streak off with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from just inside the halfcourt line to give Arizona a 53-33 halftime lead.

“Kerr Kriisa went on a run by himself there,” said Utes guard Gabe Madsen, who led the Utah with 15 points.

Smith said that once the Wildcats (25-2, 15-1) get going, there’s no stopping them.

“When they get out, I mean their spurtability is incredible,” he said. “They are kinda like the Lakers of the ‘80s, where they get out in transition, or start getting turnovers, and they start getting dunks and dunks and they get energy off of that.”

Utah was giving the 11-point favorites all they wanted before Kriisa took over.

Lahat Thioune gave the Utes a lift off the bench (part of Utah’s 18 first-half bench points) with a couple buckets and they led 28-27 when Marco Anthony hit a free throw with 6:44 left in the half.

A 26-5 run by Arizona to end the first half restored order.

Chants of “U of A, U of A” rang down from the hundreds of Arizona fans in attendance — again, the upper bowl was curtained off — and all the partisan Utah fans could do was look on and realize that Arizona is, indeed, one of the top teams in the country.

Kriisa, who didn’t play in Arizona’s 18-point win over Utah in Tucson because he was injured “horsing around,” in the words of coach Tommy Lloyd, in the shootaround before the game, finished the half with 21 points on 7 of 9 shooting, 7 of 8 from deep.

The 21 points matched Kriisa’s career-high. He didn’t score in the second half, going 0 of 2, but the damage had been done. He was taken out with 3:02 left and Arizona cruising to the win, but lobbied Lloyd to put him back in to get that last rebound he needed for the triple-double.

“Put me back in and you are going to see the hardest box-out that I’ve ever done,” Kriisa told Lloyd, a Mark Few protege who said he generally doesn’t like to do stuff like that but 10 rebounds is so rare for a point guard that he wanted to let the sophomore have a chance.

The 10th rebound came when Adama Bal blocked Jaxon Brenchley’s layup and Kerr corralled the loose ball. It wasn’t pretty, but it put him in the Arizona record books.

“He is their spark plug. He obviously is good. You can see the emotion he plays with, and the energy he plays with, and the energy that he brings, and look what he does tonight: As a point guard. I mean, that is a tremendous stat line, and the victory as well,” Smith said.

Later, he added that Kriisa, who was assessed a technical foul, “is not struggling with confidence.”

Trailing 53-33 at halftime, any hopes that Utah had of making a big comeback were dashed when Arizona scored the first nine points of the second half, completing a 35-5 run.

Arizona led by as many as 29 points — 62-33 — but the Utes kept scrapping. They got it down to 17 after a flurry of points from David Jenkins Jr., but Christian Koloko, Bennedict Mathurin and Tubellis delivered dunks on three consecutive possessions to send the message that the Utes’ comeback party was going to be short-lived.

At that point, the Wildcats had seven dunks and 10 layups on their 30 made field goals.

If there was a silver lining for the Utes, it was that Jenkins Jr. had his best game in quite awhile, a confidence-boost type of outing that might pay off in March. The UNLV transfer finished with 14 points, including a 5-for-6 performance from the free-throw line. 

“I liked how he just played in attack mode and got to the free-throw line,” Smith said.

Both Gach started well for the Utes and had nine first-half points before finishing with 13.

But the Utes turned the ball over nine times in the first half, including a weak pass that Mathurin intercepted, raced down the court, then pulled up for a 3-pointer to give U of A a 36-38 lead.

Utah had eight straight empty possessions in the last few minutes of the half before Madsen it a triple to stop the bleeding. However, seconds after Madsen’s shot, Kriisa nailed the 3-pointer from just over the halfcourt line.

It was that kind of night for the Runnin’ Utes.