McConnell, Johnson star as No. 10 Arizona topples No. 8 Utah
TUCSON, Ariz. — So this is what happens when Arizona plays with energy, commitment and togetherness.
The Wildcats on Saturday looked more like the No. 2-ranked team that started the season than the one that this week dropped to No. 10. But they’re sure to climb again after playing perhaps their best game of the season in beating No. 8 Utah 69-51 in front of a sold out and rowdy crowd at McKale Center.
The big game brought out an extraordinary effort.
"We’ve been the hunted for 2-1/2 years and we’ve been in these types of games, any loss we’ve had in two years on the road the court has been stormed," Arizona coach Sean Miller said. "… We have to, as a coach and staff, be aware that can’t be a burden. Recently, it started to feel that way, where if you win you are relieved, and if you lose, it’s like, ‘can you believe we lost?’ and ‘we stink.’"
That was hardly the case on no-stench Saturday. Outside of the first few minutes — when it found itself down 10-2 and later 17-10 — Arizona looked like the Arizona of old: fast-breaking, stout and aggressive.
"Today, we played with great effort and intensity," Miller said. "It resulted in a great performance."
Arizona did it with surprising ease against Utah, a talented team that fell to 14-3 and 4-1 in the Pac-12 Conference. Arizona (16-2, 4-1) has won 11 consecutive games vs. the Utes. And this one was as convincing as Arizona had all season, in part because Utah was considered the favorite entering the game.
Arizona crushed Utah in rebounding (40-19), points in the paint (34-14) and second-chance points (18-3).
"It’s just one of those things we really wanted to focus and concentrate on — three-four-five all going in to crash (to get rebounds)," said Arizona’s Brandon Ashley, who had eight rebounds and 14 points. "It’s really hard to stop all of us on the glass."
Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak felt the pain.
"I thought this was a case where our inability to get a rebound carried over to our offense where it was just too much to overcome," he said. "They were getting two shots from each possession so it just put too much pressure on our offense."
Arizona clamped down there, too. Utah’s leading scorer, Delon Wright, finished with 10 points, five below his season average. He had just one point in the pivotal second half.
Utah shot just 16 for 41 for the game, 11 percent below its season average.
"They didn’t let us score off of transition and everything was from a set offense," said Wright, who took just three shots in the second half. "They made it real tough for me."
The "head of the snake," as Krystkowiak called Arizona guard T.J. McConnell, was the big reason why. Behind McConnell’s 12 first-half points, Arizona recovered from the early deficits to outscore Utah 21-8 in the final 11 minutes of the first half to take a 31-26 lead. If McConnell didn’t hit the shot, he provided the assist.
"That can be an everyday thing for him," freshman Stanley Johnson said of McConnell’s first-half effort. "He chooses not to be (aggressive like that). When we need it, he does it. I think that’s the perfect flip-side to what we do because just as you think he isn’t going to shoot, he now shoots. I think he’s probably one of the best point guards in the country. He makes it easy for all of us."
Miller went one further: "T.J. came here with very little fanfare but I can make the argument that no player that we’ve brought here in my time has been more instrumental towards winning than him."
If it was McConnell who kept Arizona in the game in the first half, it was Johnson who bullied his way to make sure the Wildcats pulled away. Johnson finished with 18 points and nine rebounds, all in the second half after he picked up two "cheap" fouls in the first half.
"There aren’t too many guys who can do that to Utah," Miller said of Johnson. "He was a monster in the second half."
The two fouls kept him on the bench for 10 minutes in the first half.
"In the first half, I saw a lot of creases and gaps, but you know, it was kind of early in the game so you don’t want to kind of push the pace," said Johnson, who took just one shot in the first half. "(In the) second half, I felt like we took advantage of some things."
By the middle of the second half, Utah was down 52-35 on two Johnson free throws. Flashes of Johnson’s excellence could continue. Miller said he and others must realize Johnson is just a freshman and there are still growing pains.
"(But) every time he’s gone through these experiences he’s improved, learned and gotten better," Miller said. "He plays within the framework of our team very well. His attitude right now is great on a daily basis."