There wasn’t a lot for Utah coach Craig Smith to be happy about at the halftime break.
A first-half stat line of 32% from the field, 20% from 3-point range and 17% from the free-throw line is not going to cut it in any Pac-12 game, let alone against the No. 8 team in the nation.
Earlier this week, Craig Smith said that Arizona had the best defense he’d seen from a Wildcats team in his three-season span at the helm of the Runnin’ Utes, and Arizona certainly lived up to Smith’s pregame billing in the first 20 minutes of play.
The Wildcats were suffocating on defense, forcing the Utes into eight first-half turnovers and some poor shot selection at times as a result of Arizona’s great defense deep into the shot clock, especially in the middle and end of the first half.
Two key scoring droughts for Utah helped Arizona build a 16-point halftime advantage — a 1-for-8 stretch from 12:02 until 8:44 and an 0-for-8 stretch from 5:57 to 1:11.
“I thought we were a bit disjointed ... roughly the last 10 minutes, eight to 10 minutes of that first half,” Smith said.
“But it just felt like we wanted it easy and we weren’t just pass, pass attack, moving. We weren’t being players without the ball consistently. You got to be able to move without the ball against these guys. If you’re just standing still, they’re going to load up on you and now it’s hard.”
After being outscored 41-25 by No. 8 Arizona in the first half on Thursday at the Huntsman Center, Utah’s players were challenged by the coaching staff — and each other — ahead of the second half.
“I think we were hard on each other in the locker room at halftime to come back and play hard that second half,” Utah guard Deivon Smith said.
The Utes have been a second-half team at home this season, and that was true again on Thursday night as Utah played its best second half of the season in front of a Hunstman Center crowd of 10,944 whose energy and noise rose as the Utes whittled away the Wildcats’ 16-point lead.
Utah chipped away at Arizona’s lead throughout the first 10 minutes, then exploded for a 13-2 run over 5:20 to tie the game at 53. The hoop looked like an ocean for Utah, which made its first seven 3-pointers — Gabe Madsen and Branden Carlson each made three 3-pointers — to start the second half.
“The second half, I just thought we had way more ball movement, way more player movement, way more just making simple plays,” Craig Smith said.
“That was the last thing we put on the board in pregame in these types of games. You just got to make the simple play and not to oversimplify it, but it’s the truth, right? And so the aggressor always wins. That’s what we challenge them at halftime. Like we got to be assertive, we have to have a great mentality. We got to play with force because I thought we were really on our heels specifically that last eight to 10 minutes of the first half.”
Down by one, with 8:26 left, Utah missed four shots to take the lead, including a blown Keba Keita layup. A free-throw by Branden Carlson tied the game at 63 with 6:09 remaining, but it continued to be a struggle to get over the hump until a Lawson Lovering and-one and a Branden Carlson jumper erased a mini 4-0 run by Arizona and gave the Utes their first lead since 12:40 in the first half.
With 4:38 left, the fun was just getting started.
Over the next three minutes, Arizona rebuilt a five-point lead, and looked to be in control with just over a minute remaining.
After a Keita dunk, followed by some good defense by Utah on Arizona star Caleb Love, Deivon Smith corralled the rebound and pushed the pace, outletting the ball to Gabe Madsen, who stepped into a transition triple and nailed it to tie the game.
“I think Gabe really craves these big games, big moments. He wants that tough shot at the end of the game to tie it up. He did it tonight,” Branden Carlson said.
The Utes got the stop on the ensuing Wildcats possession to force overtime.
Overall. Utah shot 53% from the field and a red-hot 73% from 3-point range in a spirited second half, outscoring the Wildcats 51-35 in the final 20 minutes of regulation.
With 39 seconds left in the first overtime period, Utah forced a miss from Love, then Deivon Smith was fouled and split his pair of free throws. Love hit a tough floater to tie the game up at 82 and give the Utes what looked like the last possession.
Deivon Smith attempted to drive underneath the basket with 4.5 seconds left, but stepped out of bounds on the baseline, giving the ball back to Arizona, but Love’s last-second shot was no good, sending the game to a second overtime period.
Former Ute Pelle Larsson missed two free throws late in second overtime to keep the Utes alive, then both teams exchanged ugly final possessions with two 3-pointers that weren’t close to send the game to a third extra period.
Arizona found another gear in the marathon game, outscoring Utah 14-8 in the third extra period to escape a rowdy Huntsman Center with a 105-99 victory in the first-ever triple-overtime game in the building’s 54-year history.
An alley-oop dunk by Oumar Ballo and a free-throw by Larsson put Arizona up three, then Love hit a 3-pointer to increase the lead to six points with two minutes remaining. Love then helped boost the Wildcats’ lead to eight points by grabbing an offensive rebound and dishing it to Larsson for a layup, the ultimate dagger for the Utes.
“We didn’t find a way to win there. We had some chances to make some plays and we just didn’t make enough of them and credit to them,” Craig Smith said.
Branden Carlson scored 24 of his 27 points in the second half and overtimes to lead the Utes, while Devion Smith had a triple-double — 14 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists. Keita poured in 18 and Madsen added 17 points.
After a five-point first-half, Caleb Love scored 14 in the second half, including some huge plays in the third overtime, and Larsson had 27 points in his old arena.
There’s plenty to point at in the loss — the lackluster first half, the missed opportunities to take the lead earlier in the second half, the turnover by Smith in the first overtime, and the empty possession at the end of the second overtime — but a 48% night from the free-throw line hurts the most for the Utes, who normally shoot 66% from the charity stripe.
“Like I told the guys in a game like that, when you play a tight game like that against a really good team, we got to be able to seize the moment and there’s so many things that it can come down to. Certainly free-throw shooting was a really disappointing thing,” Craig Smith said.
While it certainly wasn’t the result Utah wanted, Devion Smith was proud of the fight Utah showed in its second-half comeback.
“I think it showed we had a lot of heart, showed we could play all the way down to the stretch. Some stuff didn’t go our way, but just the energy in the locker room after the game and during those three overtimes, it shows how much heart we have,” he said.