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Wildcats Basketball: No. 1 Arizona 65, Utah 56

Freshmen dominate boards as No. 1 Cats hold on

En route to yet another school record Sunday, the unbeaten Arizona Wildcats proved again that shooting percentage isn’t everything.

If you miss, simply grab the ball. Then put up another shot.

Like, 20 times.

Aaron Gordon can explain how that works.

During the No. 1 Wildcats’ 65-56 win over Utah, which gave Arizona a school-record 20th straight win over college teams, the freshman forward threw up an airball from the free-throw line.

He missed five other free throws, and was 3 for 13 from the field.

He became angry.

Aaron Gordon being angry is not a good thing for the other team.

Gordon finished with 12 rebounds and scored 10 points, on two dunks, a layup and four free throws. He was still, even with his offensive struggles, one of the most effective players on the floor, along with UA guard Nick Johnson, who had 22 points on 9-for-18 shooting.

“My all-around game wasn’t too well, so rebounding was one thing I can focus on,” Gordon said. “It comes pretty naturally to me. I was just taking out my frustration and aggression on the rebounding.”

Gordon picked up seven offensive rebounds, while fellow freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson grabbed another five on the offensive end.

Johnson called the two freshmen “monsters.” UA coach Sean Miller raved about their playmaking.

And Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak summed it all up, after UA overall grabbed a season-high 20 offensive rebounds and scored 19 second-chance points.

“They pounded us,” Krystkowiak said. “We just couldn’t match their level of physicality. It was a whooping when it came to the boards.”

So, while Washington coach Lorenzo Romar noted earlier this month that Arizona’s offensive rebounding is “almost” like part of their offense, that wasn’t quite correct Sunday.

It was their offense. And Johnson’s scoring, of course.

The Wildcats often gained their second-chance points at critical times, slamming down a missed shot when the rest of the offense sputtered occasionally against the Utes’ mind-boggling array of defenses.

Utah led 12-2 early, trailed by five at halftime only after (you guessed it) Kaleb Tarczewski dunked in an offensive rebound at the buzzer, and played into a 47-47 tie with 10 minutes left in the game.

But, with Arizona’s defense stuffing several straight Utah possessions after the tie, Gordon dunked in a rebound with 9:28 left to give the Wildcats a 49-47 lead. From there, Hollis-Jefferson hit a couple more rebound baskets for good measure the rest of the way.

“Those two guys … they bring athleticism and physicality and big-moment plays,” Miller said of Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson. “The bigger the game, the more competitive the game … those guys are first-year players but they’re really at home when it’s like that.

“Both guys made some really good plays to help us win, especially on the glass.”

It became apparent early in Sunday’s game that the Wildcats weren’t going to easily just shoot their way out of this one. Utah used a mix of zone, man-to-man and gimmick defenses, throwing the Wildcats off somewhat like they did during close games at McKale Center over the previous two seasons.

Miller tried to describe it, but that took a while.

“Utah plays us differently,” Miller said. “They played a triangle-and-two, a 2-3 zone, played man-to-man. Switched every screen in a man-to-man. Showed 2-3 zone and went man-to-man. Went man-to-man and then switched to 2-3 zone. Every time we took the ball underneath out of bounds they switched every screen.”

The somewhat befuddled Wildcats actually missed 10 of their first 11 shots while Utah built an early 12-2 lead by the time Delon Wright scored on a goaltending call against Gabe York.

“Half the game, we didn’t know if they were in man, matchup zone or whatever,” Johnson said. “It was difficult thing to adjust to.”

But the Wildcats figured it out just enough, rattling off a 12-0 run, pulling ahead 14-12 with 8:06 left in the first half when Gabe York was fouled on a layup and converted the ensuing free throws.

The game remained close the rest of the half. And while Utah quickly erased the halftime lead, and held a tie with 10 minutes to go, the Wildcats also fixed that with a 12-2 run late in the second half to take control of the game.

The win moved UA to 20-0 and 7-0 in the Pac-12, while Utah dropped to 14-6 and 3-5.

Gordon said the consecutive wins record felt great but that it wasn’t the Wildcats’ top priority, and that just focusing on the next game, next series was.

That’s a pretty good idea considering the Wildcats now have to take yet another potentially difficult trip this week, to Stanford and California.

Already though, Miller noted, the Wildcats weren’t expected to beat Duke for the NIT Season Tip-Off title, weren’t expected to win at Michigan, or even at UCLA.

And yet they’re still perfect. Even if their shots aren’t always that way.

“I feel the same way (now), almost as if we’re due to lose, and maybe we will,” Miller said. “But we’re gonna approach things the same way. We respect both of those teams a great deal. Going on the road is hard but when you’re No. 1, going on the road might be even harder.

“But it’s brought out the best in our team so far, so we’ll see.”

Up next

What: No. 1 Arizona at Stanford

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday

TV: ESPN2

Radio: 1290-AM, 107-5-FM, 990-AM (Spanish)