TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — Arizona coach Sean Miller called his team a home underdog with a Top 10 opponent visiting the McKale Center.
The way the Wildcats dominated, he may not be able to do that again.
Aggressive and crisp at both ends, No. 10 Arizona turned its Pac-12 showdown with Utah into a rout, overcoming a sluggish start to roll over the eighth-ranked Utes 69-51 on Saturday.
“Maybe what we recognized today is that a team like that brought out the best in us,” Miller said.
Arizona (16-2, 4-1 Pac-12) came out shaky at both ends in the Pac-12’s first game between Top 10 teams in nearly seven years.
Pass-first point guard T.J. McConnell showed a rare display of offensive aggression to rally the Wildcats, creating his own shots while still setting up teammates and playing his usual not-give-an-inch defense. The senior finished with 16 points, six assists and helped Arizona slow Utah’s Delon Wright after he scored seven quick points.
Freshman Stanley Johnson played like a freshman in the first half, a non-factor with two fouls and no other stats of note. He played more like one of the nation’s most talented players in the second half, getting all 18 of his points and all nine rebounds to keep Utah at bay.
Brandon Ashley was at his assertive best, finishing with 14 points, eight rebounds and one emphatic second-half block that sailed into the stands.
As a whole, the Wildcats played perhaps their best game, shooting 49 percent against one of the nation’s toughest defensive teams while hounding the Utes into one difficult shot after another. They were particularly effective against Wright, who had three points after his initial flurry.
Arizona also outworked the Pac-12’s best rebounding team, grabbing 21 more than the Utes (14-3, 4-1), including 17 on the offensive glass that led to 18 second-chance points.
So much for underdogs.
“Coach Sean Miller joked about trying to figure out a way to upset us and that was like being in the middle of a dream,” Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said. “Coming in here, we knew we didn’t have to pitch a perfect game, but we had to be a lot tighter in some areas. Looking at the rebounds, that’s an indication that we still have some work to do.”
Brandon Taylor had 12 points and Jordan Loveridge scored all of his 11 points in the second half for Utah.
Coming off a win over Colorado, Miller did say the Wildcats would be underdogs at home against the up-in-your-face Utes.
Though not entirely true — Arizona was a six-point favorite — Utah was not going to be an easy mountain to climb for the sometimes-inconsistent Wildcats.
Utah entered McKale Center with a higher ranking and leading the Pac-12 after winning seven straight games. The Utes also were among the national leaders in defensive scoring and shooting percentage, and have the dynamic duo of Delon Wright and Loveridge.
Utah sure looked like the better team early, starting with Wright’s steal and breakaway dunk on the game’s opening possession.
The Utes jammed up the Wildcats inside and they had no answer, missing six of their first seven shots while Utah opened with a 10-2 run, with Wright having a hand in all 10 points.
The Wildcats clawed back behind their feisty bulldog of point guard, McConnell, who dribbled in and out of traffic to set up himself and his teammates.
McConnell had 12 points — two on a jumper over the 7-foot reach of Jakob Poeltl — two assists and set up his teammates for five free throws by halftime, helping Arizona build a 31-26 lead after its early funk.
“We know he is the head of the snake,” Krystkowiak said.
Utah did a little better on McConnell in the second half, but then Johnson took over.
He scored nine quick points, including a breakaway dunk off a steal to push the lead to 12. McConnell added in a nifty no-look pass to Dusan Ristic for a layup that put the Wildcats up 46-32.
Arizona turned up the defensive pressure on Utah to close out the first half and continued to hound the Utes, making every possession a battle to get a shot off.
The combination made it impossible for the Utes to mount any kind of comeback, sending Arizona off to a resounding victory that could be a spark for the rest of the season.
“Tonight, we came together a lot more,” Johnson said.
Utah: The Utes were playing their first matchup between Top 10 teams since losing to Kentucky in the 1998 NCAA championship game. It was their first Top 10 game in conference play since facing New Mexico in the WAC in 1968.
Arizona: The McKale Center last hosted two Top 10 teams in 2004. … Guard Gabe York returned after missing the previous game with an ankle injury, but didn’t score in limited action.
Utah hosts Washington State on Wednesday night.
Arizona plays at Stanford on Thursday night.
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