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Tucson Ariz. • Larry Krystkowiak likened the experience to pure smashmouth football.
Arizona may not be the best shooting team in the country. The Wildcats may not be the best team offensively. But one would be hard-pressed to find a better defensive team or a better rebounding team.
Eventually much like a running attack on the gridiron Arizona wears you down, and wears you out. On Sunday night, the Utes got a taste of that firsthand in a 65-56 loss to the Wildcats, the No. 1 team in the country.
Before 14,530 at the McKale Center, Utah held a 47-45 lead with nine minutes remaining. Those last nine minutes belonged to Arizona, as Sean Miller's team owned seemingly every rebound, made stops on the defensive end and rode Nick Johnson's hot hand to a school-record 20th consecutive win to start the season.
"I think their physicality and athleticism wore us out," Krystkowiak said. "They pounded us on the glass, they beat us to a ton of loose balls and we had a bunch of issues with that down the stretch. I think we took some bad shots and made some bad plays, turned the ball over a little bit and that contributed to Arizona's win."
Much like last season, the Utes are having trouble winning on the road. Utah has now lost five consecutive games this year away from the Huntsman Center, all of them in close, hotly contested games that have ended in bitter disappointment.
On Sunday when Rondae Hollis-Jefferson threw down a thunderous dunk as time expired Krystkowiak stood on the sideline, staring into space as Miller was waiting for the postgame handshake.
Some of the defeats have left Utah a bit numb, no question. But the reality of Sunday was that the Utes stood toe-to-toe with a Final Four contender and didn't flinch for 31 minutes. Utah ran off 12 of the first 14 points of the game. Delon Wright was his usual all-around self, and Jordan Loveridge was making shot after shot. The combination of those two, plus defense, made Arizona exert as much energy for a win as it had at any point during league play.
But much like the loss to Arizona State on Thursday, the Utes couldn't keep pace or extend their lead when they had chances to.
"We came out strong, we were running our offense well and we were making shots," Wright said. "I thought we played really well defensively, and that's what made us competitive tonight."
Fact is, Utah may have played its best game of the season defensively. But to be completely successful on that end, you have to finish possessions with rebounds. That's where the Utes faltered.
The Wildcats won the rebounding battle 40-29. An astounding 20 of those Arizona boards came off the offensive glass. It's demoralizing to play 35 seconds of great defense just to surrender a layup, but that's what Utah suffered in abundance.
"They were great tonight," Miller said. "They kept us off-balance; they did a great job of switching defenses and keeping us guessing. Our guys found a way tonight against a very good team."
Utah falls to 14-6 overall, 3-5 in the Pac-12. Wright led the Utes with 19 points, six rebounds and four assists. Loveridge added 13 points, but Utah once again was missing a third scorer. Sophomore forward Dakarai Tucker had 10 points, but no other player scored more than six.
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No. 1 Arizona 65, Utah 56
Loveridge 4-14 4-4 13, Bachynski 2-5 0-0 4, Taylor 0-1 0-0 0, Tucker 4-8 1-2 10, Wright 5-12 9-10 19, Onwas 0-1 0-0 0, Van Dyke 0-0 0-0 0, Lenz 0-0 0-0 0, Ogbe 2-4 0-0 6, Olsen 2-2 0-0 4.
Totals 19-47 14-16 56.
Gordon 3-13 4-10 10, Ashley 4-9 2-2 11, Tarczewski 1-1 2-2 4, McConnell 2-9 0-0 5, N. Johnson 9-18 3-5 22, York 1-4 1-1 3, Hollis-Jefferson 4-6 2-3 10.
Totals 24-60 14-23 65.
HalftimeArizona 31-26. 3-Point GoalsUtah 4-13 (Ogbe 2-3, Tucker 1-3, Loveridge 1-4, Taylor 0-1, Wright 0-2), Arizona 3-14 (Ashley 1-1, N. Johnson 1-4, McConnell 1-5, Gordon 0-1, York 0-3). Fouled OutNone. ReboundsUtah 29 (Bachynski 10), Arizona 40 (Gordon 12). AssistsUtah 9 (Wright 4), Arizona 10 (McConnell 4). Total FoulsUtah 20, Arizona 15. A14,545.