SALT LAKE CITY — Strong defense has saved Arizona in several games this season. It was no different against a determined underdog in a tough environment on the road.
Gabe York and Nick Johnson each scored 15 points, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson added 13 and the fourth-ranked Wildcats escaped with a 67-63 overtime victory against Utah on Wednesday night.
Arizona held the Utes to one field goal over the final 5 minutes and forced a critical turnover in the closing seconds.
"We just had to buckle down," Johnson said. "We had to buckle down on defense. We had to rebound. They were really getting us on the offensive rebounds."
The score was tied at 58 before Hollis-Jefferson made two baskets to give the Wildcats a four-point lead with 1:52 left in overtime. His first bucket came after he snagged an offensive rebound. The second one came after Brandon Taylor, an 86 percent free throw shooter, missed three straight from the line to prevent Utah from taking the lead.
"Rondae had some offensive rebounds and some plays that he made that were great," Johnson said. "If we didn’t have him, we wouldn’t have won."
Delon Wright made a pair of free throws to cut it to 62-60, but threw the ball away with 33.9 seconds left. Johnson and T.J. McConnell each made free throws to help secure the victory.
The Wildcats (24-2, 11-2 Pac-12) beat Utah for the ninth straight time since a loss to the Utes in the 1998 NCAA tournament. Arizona also held onto sole possession of first place in the Pac-12, one game ahead of UCLA.
Taylor had 13 points and Wright and Dallin Bachynski each scored 12 for the Utes (17-9, 6-8), who lost at home for the second time this season. Utah last beat Arizona at home in 1985.
The Utes fell short despite outrebounding the Wildcats 37-31 and finishing with a 34-23 edge in the paint.
"It was a classic game and one of the things I was most proud of is the fact that we came back," Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said. "We built that deficit against a really good basketball team and (then) put a little different lineup on the floor and went small. I thought some of our young kids gave us a great lift and we got more aggressive. We got to the free throw line."
Arizona started strong, making its first four field goal attempts and taking a 9-8 lead.
Utah kept pace by hitting seven of its first 10 shots from the field. Princeton Onwas stole the ball from Hollis-Jefferson and dunked it on the other end to cap a 6-0 spurt.
Arizona went on a 14-0 run later in the half. York capped the surge by hitting a 3-pointer and then taking his own steal from Taylor in for a layup, giving the Wildcats a 25-16 lead.
"That’s what he can do," Arizona coach Sean Miller said. "He made some timely shots. One of the big reasons we went in the half with a lead was because of his offense."
Utah briefly trimmed the deficit to five after baskets from Taylor and Bachynski. Arizona quickly answered, pushing the lead to double digits with 3s from York and Hollis-Jefferson that made it 35-24.
The Utes cut it to single digits again when Onwas took another steal in for a dunk to make it 35-26. Arizona had a chance to take a 12-point lead into the locker room when Jordin Mayes nailed a 3-pointer at the buzzer, but the officials waved it off during halftime.
Utah cut the lead to 40-33 when Taylor stole the ball from Johnson and took it in for a layup. The Wildcats thwarted the rally for a time, going back up by 12 on McConnell’s jumper.
But the Utes ripped off a 10-2 run to get back into the game. A pair of big baskets from freshman Ahmad Fields cut the deficit to 48-44. Arizona endured a short cold spell after a layup from McConnell made it 52-44 with 6:41 left, going 3:13 without a field goal.
The Wildcats also had to finish the game without star forward Aaron Gordon after he fouled out with 8:41 left in the second half.
Utah took advantage with an 11-2 run and went ahead 55-54 on a runner from Jordan Loveridge with 3:09 remaining.
Arizona regained a one-point lead on Johnson’s jumper with 2:21 left. Utah tied it when Loveridge made one of two free throws with 28 seconds to go. McConnell had a chance to win it for the Wildcats in regulation, but missed a runner in the lane as time expired.
Arizona made sure its second chance to win in overtime didn’t slip away.
"At some points, we weren’t playing smart basketball," McConnell said. "But at the end we did and that’s what matters most."