McKale conference championships banners 2014

Make room for one more. Photo by Wildcat Universe

It was a college basketball game but it felt more like a 12-round boxing match.

The Arizona Wildcats and Utah Utes traded body blows for 40 minutes with the defending Pac-12 champs countering punch after punch to exit the ring as two-time defending champs.

It certainly wasn’t the Thrilla in Manilla. Nobody likes games with 46 fouls (except, apparently, Pac-12 officials). But it was this conference’s best, two heavyweights battling in a defensive slugfest worthy of a nickname (is “Assault by the Lake of Salt” taken?).

The Wildcats appeared staggered multiple times but did not fall. The UA took the Utes’ best shot and repeatedly responded like true champions.

Punch: Foul trouble

By the 10-minute mark in the first half, Stanley Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Gabe York had each been saddled with two fouls. Kaleb Tarczewski was whistled for his second before intermission then hit with the monitor-aided technical foul three minutes into the second half.

The inadvertent elbow looked like a turning point. It took a tie game and gave Utah a four-point Utah advantage, a lead the Utes wouldn’t surrender for the next 10 minutes of game action.

Counterpunch: Versatility

At the end of the night not a single Wildcat fouled out. When Tarczewski had to sit, Arizona was able to play small. York and Elliott Pitts played a combined 35 minutes. The Cats were able to spread the fouls around and finish with a full lineup.

Punch: Johnson’s poor shooting

Poor is an understatement. The freshman’s 16 missed field goals were five more than his previous high (in the loss to ASU).

Counterpunch: Johnson’s rich rebounding

If your leading scorer is struggling it helps to have your leading rebounder step up. For Arizona that also happens to be Stanley Johnson who pulled down a big 11 boards including eight on the offensive end. As the cliché goes, when your shots aren’t falling, find another ways to contribute.

Punch: Lid on the basket

Johnson certainly wasn’t alone in missing shots. If you go to the play-by-play and search for “missed layup” your browser melts. There was a sequence midway through the second half where the Wildcats went missed dunk, missed layup, missed layup, and that was one trip down the floor.

Counterpunch: Put a tighter lid on the other basket

The best way to beat a team when you’re not shooting well is to make them shoot worse. Utah held the Cats to 33% from the floor but Arizona limited the Utes to just 31%.

Punch: Getting outscored 21-6 on 3-pointers

Where Utah did find some success was behind the arc. Five of the Utes’ first seven made shots were 3-pointers. The home team added a couple more triples in the final eight minutes. Arizona made just one 3 in each half.

Counterpunch: Outscoring them 27-16 at the free throw line

If the game is being tightly called you have to take advantage. Arizona went to the line 37 times Saturday night and made enough (73%) to win.

Punch: Benching Johnson during crunch time

With his star freshman missing shots (and suffering a defensive lapse on one of Utah’s late 3-pointers), Sean Miller made the bold decision to bench Johnson for the final couple minutes of the game.

Counterpunch: Biggest plays of York’s career

Gabe wasn’t exactly lighting it up, missing his first four 3-point attempts. But his first made 3 was a big one, coming with eight minutes remaining after Utah had built a six-point lead, its largest of the night. The Wildcat junior then made the play of the game by rebounding his missed free throw and scoring to give Arizona its final lead with 99 seconds left. York then made the other play of the game by blocking Brandon Taylor’s potential game-tying 3-pointer with 19 seconds left.

To Johnson’s credit he didn’t sulk after sitting and was right in the middle of the postgame celebration. He also publicly showed the team-first attitude you want from any athlete, but especially your stars:

Punch: 15,000 very loud fans

Utah hoops fans had been waiting for this opportunity for 17 years. It was easily the school’s biggest sports moment since joining the Pac-12 and the basketball program’s biggest stage since the 1998 Final Four. This will be Utah’s first NCAA tournament appearance in six years and only second in the last decade. Since 2006 Utah has won one Mountain West title but has posted a losing conference record in every other season until this one.

In other words, the Utah fans weren’t just hungry Saturday night, they were starving.

Counterpunch: Championship experience

Every road game is like this for Arizona Basketball. Maybe not this loud and the opponent isn’t always this good but to be hated by 95% of the people in the building is nothing new to the UA.

Overcoming adversity away from home is what champions do. And because of it the Pac-12 championship belt stays in Tucson.

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