Top-seeded and fourth-ranked Arizona showed what it was capable of this postseason in Thursday’s quarterfinals of the Pac-12 tournament, manhandling a 21-win Utah team in a record-setting 71-39 victory at the MGM.
It might have been all but over in the first 10 minutes, when the Wildcats set the tone with their trademark suffocating defense and jumped out to a 15-6 lead. But they kept up the pressure, and freshman forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson said it wasn’t until about 10 minutes remained that Arizona really felt things were under control.
It was definitely over when walk-on Chris Johnson — yes, Chris — nailed a 3-pointer with 1:09 left for the game’s final points. It prompted a happy dance from his brother Nick, the star of the show, which was repeated in the post-game locker room.
"I think the whole team feels good for him," Nick Johnson said. "We’re always happy when the bench gets in and they score. It was a happy feeling."
All that was missing was the music by Pharrell Williams. If Arizona continues to play like it did on Thursday afternoon, it might as well book the guy for the after party. Hey, this is Vegas.
"It was a great day for us," Hollis-Jefferson said.
Great day, indeed. Arizona (29-3) advances to play fifth-seeded Colorado in Friday’s semifinals at 6 p.m. (PT)
Arizona, which had two narrow victories over Utah during the regular season, put on its best start-to-finish performance of the year, limiting the Utes (21-11) to 25.5 percent from the floor, 12 baskets and 39 points— all new Pac-12 tournament records.
"We were locked in and our effort level — everything we really wanted to do defensively — we were able to do it," Arizona coach Sean Miller said.
Utah’s All-Pac-12 guard Delon Wright didn’t score until late in the game, hitting just 1 of 8 shots. He finished with five points.
Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said his team "got punched in the mouth by a really good basketball team. We saw Arizona at their finest."
Krystkowiak said Arizona took the "life out of us," adding that he hopes to see the Wildcats carry the Pac-12 banner deep into the NCAA tournament.
Johnson said the start of the postseason was the start of a refocus for the Wildcats after last week’s loss at Oregon in their regular-season finale.
It all started with Johnson, who had 12 of his 14 points in the first half.
"I felt good," said Johnson, the conference’s player of the year. "I’ve had a little bit of a confidence boost because of some of the awards I’ve won and the team has won. It feels good. It’s definitely been a boost in our confidence. That’s one of the reasons why we played well today."
"Well" might be not generous enough. Arizona shot 52 percent from the field and hit 71 percent from the foul line. Critics have harped on both categories.
Arizona received good, solid contributions from all its rotation regulars. Freshman Aaron Gordon had 11 points and seven rebounds, and point guard T.J. McConnell added 13 points, four rebounds and four assists. Reserve Elliott Pitts came in and took a couple charges, had two points and an assist.
Arizona might have been as aggressive as it’s been this season. Johnson called it "a little edge and a little swagger."
Guard Gabe York said the mentality for the rest of the season can be summed up thusly: "We are playing to win and not to not lose."
"Coach has always said to go out and be aggressive," York said. "We’re 28-3 and there’s a reason why. (It’s) going out there and playing basketball like we know how."
While Arizona seems likely to be a No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament, York said winning the Pac-12 tournament means a lot "because championships are championships."
"We got cheated last year, and everyone knows that," York said, referring to a 66-64 loss to UCLA after a controversial technical called against Miller. "Coach was telling us that this is the time to have more intensity than ever compared to the regular season."
Arizona dominated in every phase — 32 points in the paint, 13 points off turnovers and 12 fast-break points.
"It’s March Madness. There’s a buzz in the air," said Gordon. "Coming to Vegas gives our team a little bit extra energy. We’re going to come out there and do what Arizona basketball does, and that’s play hard defense."