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Cat Tracks: Arizona’s defense sets the record straight by demolishing Utah in Pac-12 quarterfinals

LAS VEGAS — The Arizona Wildcats’ win was a loud one Thursday afternoon — both on the court and in the stands — with a 71-39 blowout over Utah in their opening game of the Pac-12 Tournament.

Arizona (29-3, 15-3) relentlessly pressured the Utes from the opening tip, who failed to muster any offensive rhythm. The Wildcats raced out to a 22-6 lead, courtesy of a suffocating defense combined with several converted fast break opportunities.

“I think that’s been our biggest thing this year, really”, junior guard Nick Johnson — the conference’s player of the year — said about his team’s success in the transition phase.

“When we get stops and get rebounds and get the push, our athleticism is really at play. I think finishing with dunks in around the basket gets everybody going. So it’s definitely one of our strong points.”

Coach Sean Miller’s stifling defense, which has garnered national attention all season long, remained the talk after the game. Arizona held Utah to 25.5 percent shooting, 13 first half points and 39 total points — all new Pac-12 Tournament records.

“Well, they were really putting on a defensive clinic in the first half. For us to score only 13 points, you can’t really shoot that bad,” Utah center Dallin Bachynski said.

Utah went on a seven-minute scoring drought in the first half where Arizona turned a 7-6 advantage into a 15-0 run by the 7:27 mark, leading 22-6.

A large contingent of Wildcats fans made the trip to Vegas to help make the MGM Grand feel like McKale Center for Miller’s squad — inspiring their team to a rout that was never in doubt. After the game, the Pac-12’s John Wooden Coach of the Year stated that he’s excited to see even more Wildcat supporters the rest of the weekend.

“Just hearing our crowd today, I would imagine it’s only going to pick up moving towards tomorrow,” Miller said.

For Utah (21-11), this game was one to forget. They were dominated in all phases of the contest and never could stop the bleeding. Next up for them is a likely NIT berth where they have the opportunity to end their season on a much more positive note.

“We got punched in the mouth by a really good basketball team, and we saw Arizona I think at their finest,” Utes head coach Larry Krystkowiak said in his opening remarks.

Johnson led all scorers with 14 points, shooting 4-for-6 from the field. As a team, the Wildcats shot 53 percent from the field and outrebounded Utah 39-24.

TJ McConnell and Aaron Gordon both finished in double figures as well, scoring 13 and 11 points respectively.

Arizona led 34-13 at halftime, and surmounted as large as a 36 point lead in the second half.

The Good:

In a word, everything.

The Bad:

In a word, nothing.

He Said It:

“I’ll tell you, I was looking through the play sheets and trying to figure out what it is we were going to guard and what it is we were going to run, and I can’t say I was really optimistic that a whole lot was going to work. It’s a good example of what really being committed to defense does for you when you have an ultra-talented group offensively and athletically, and I think that’s why Arizona is where they are.” – Larry Krystkowiak, Utah head coach.

Up Next:

The top-seeded Wildcats advance to Friday’s semifinals for the fourth year in a row. The winner of Thursday’s matchup between no. 4 California and no. 5 Colorado awaits them.

The game is scheduled to tip off at 6 p.m. PST.