Sunday January 18th, 2015

Before No. 10 Arizona's home matchup with No. 8 Utah on Saturday, Wildcats coach Sean Miller told his team the Utes were the best team in the Pac-12. 

"They're the deepest, the most experienced, they believe in what they do the most and they execute the most on both sides of the ball," Miller said about Utah, as quoted by the Associated Press.

Miller's assessment could still prove true -- one game does not a season make -- but it was Arizona that fit the description in a statement, 69-51 home win.

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It certainly didn't seem that way at first, as Utah showed no fear in front of a raucous McKale Center crowd, jumping out to a 10-2 lead in the opening five minutes. Senior guard Delon Wright seemed especially poised, scoring seven of those Utes points and looking primed for a big game.

Enter T.J. McConnell

The senior guard, who averages 8.7 points per game, poured in 12 in the first half alone as the Wildcats rallied to go up 31-26 at halftime. And that was without star Arizona freshman Stanley Johnson scoring to that point.

But as much as the first half belonged to McConnell, the second was all Johnson's. The forward came alive for an 18-point outburst that the Utes simply had no answer for, allowing Johnson to get to the rim at will.

Five minutes into the second half, a Johnson dunk after barreling down the lane had the Wildcats up 10, and they wouldn't look back. The lead would balloon to 18 before Utah made a mini-run, closing to 57-47 on a three-pointer by Jordan Loveridge with 7:13 remaining.

Arizona's defense, which was outstanding all night, clamped down once again, and the Utes went nearly the next six minutes without scoring. It was the final push the Wildcats needed to ensure they would not only win the game, but send a message to the rest of the conference in doing so.

Heading into Saturday's game, Arizona had not lost to Utah since 1998 (a 10-0 run), and had won 31 straight games at McKale -- the second-longest active streak in the nation. The upstart Utes were a threat to both streaks, which could explain why the Wildcats were a bit tight coming out of the gate. 

The job Larry Krystkowiak has done in turning around a Utah program that went 5-13 in the Pac-12 just two years ago to a top-10 ranking by December of this season is nothing short of impressive. But Saturday's loss proved that the Utes still have some work to do if they want to live up to Miller's assessment as the conference's best team. 

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Arizona proved better on both ends of the floor, shooting 49 percent to Utah's 39 percent and doubling up the Utes on rebounds, 40 to 20. McConnell paced the 'Cats, finishing with 16 points on 8-of-10 shooting and added six assists, three rebounds and a steal, and forward Brandon Ashley added 14 points and eight boards.

Wright, who looked so dominant in the early minutes, would manage only three points the rest of the way to finish with 10. If Utah is going to prove this game was an anomaly akin to its San Diego State loss in November, the senior is going to need to do a better job of overcoming defensive adjustments. 

For now, Arizona (16-2) and Utah (14-3) are tied atop the Pac-12 standings, along with Stanford, at 4-1. They'll face off again in Salt Lake City next month in what should be an even bigger test for the Wildcats, who have already dropped two of their four road games this season.

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