LAS VEGAS — Fourth-ranked Arizona began its postseason run with one of the most dominant defensive performances in Pac-12 tournament history.
The Wildcats stuffed Utah 71-39 as the Utes set tournament records for fewest points, fewest field goals (12) and worst shooting percentage (25.5).
“We got punched in the mouth by a really good basketball team,” Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said. “We saw Arizona, I think, at their finest.”
Arizona, which won the Pac-12 regular-season title, advanced to play the winner of fourth-seeded Cal and No. 5 Colorado. That semifinal will be held Friday night at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
“It’s March Madness. There’s a buzz in the air,” Arizona freshman forward Aaron Gordon said. “Coming to Vegas gives our team a little bit extra energy. We’re going to come out there and do what Arizona basketball does, and that’s play hard defense.
“What went right? It’s just our defense.”
Arizona guard Nick Johnson, the Pac-12 Player of the Year, nearly outscored Utah by himself in the first half, putting in 12 points to help Arizona to a 34-13 lead.
It was more of the same after the break. Utah missed its first 11 shots from the field, failing to hit a basket until there was 10:44 left. Arizona twice in the second half tripled Utah’s score, including at 51-17 with 12:15 to go.
Arizona especially had success on the perimeter, pressuring Utah’s guards and converting turnovers into easy points. Arizona coach Sean Miller credited Johnson and point guard T.J. McConnell as setting the tone defensively.
“When we get stops and get rebounds and get the push, our athleticism is really at play,” Johnson said. “I think finishing with dunks and around the basket gets everybody going. So it’s definitely one of our strong points.”
Spanning halftime, Utah went more than 13 minutes with a field goal, missing 15 consecutive shots.
“Some shots that we know we could hit were not falling, but the majority of it was their defense,” Utah center Dallin Bachynski said.
The Wildcats (29-3) have virtually assured themselves of a top seed in the NCAA Tournament. Utah (21-11) will wait for a potential NIT bid.
Johnson finished with 14 points. McConnell added 13 and Gordon had 11 points and seven rebounds. None of Arizona’s top four scorers played in the final 6:35.
Utah guard Delon Wright, averaging a team-high 16.1 points per game, scored five on 1-of-8 shooting from the field. Forward Jordan Loveridge, averaging 15.1 points, scored two points and missed all six shots from the field. Wright and Loveridge were scoreless in the first half, taking only four shots.
Bachynski led the Utes with nine points.
Utah’s season was marked by close calls — eight of the previous 10 defeats were by four points or fewer — but this game was over in the first half.
“We just didn’t have anything in our playbook that really could counteract the kind of emphasis they were placing on playing D,” Krystkowiak said.
Arizona entered the game ranked ninth nationally in field-goal percentage defense (38.5) and sixth in scoring defense at 58.7 points per game, which could end up being the best average at the school since the 1950-51 season.
The Wildcats asserted that defense early in the game, holding Utah without a point for 7:55, turning a 7-6 lead into a 22-6 advantage. The Utes missed five shots and turned the ball over four times during their drought, which was ended by a jumper from forward Princeton Onwas.
Later, Arizona scored after back-to-back steals, including a coast-to-coast effort from forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, as the Wildcats took a 34-13 lead at the break. Utah turned the ball over eight times in the half and shot 26.3 percent from the field (5 of 19).
“We were locked in with our effort level,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “Everything that we really wanted to do defensively, we were able to do it.”
NOTES: Arizona junior G Nick Johnson moved from No. 31 to No. 29 on the school’s career scoring list, passing Ed Nymeyer (1,225 points) and Derrick Williams (1,227). Johnson has 1,229 points. … Utah set a Pac-12 tournament record for fewest points in a half. The Utes set the previous mark of
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