Aaron Gordon has played his fair share of bad games this year. Those have shown more about AG the player than all his successful outings combined. Because even when he goes 3-for-13 from the field and misses six free throws, he can be the difference-maker -- in a good way.
The Arizona Wildcats took the hits from the Utah Utes on Sunday, yet Gordon and guard Nick Johnson turned up the defensive heat in the final eight minutes to win 65-56 in McKale Center. No. 1 Arizona won its program-record 20th in a row.
The Wildcats trailed 12-2 seven minutes into the game, and more than anything, the Utes' athleticism and length bothered the Wildcats, the first time that's happened this season. With the game tied at 47 and just after Gordon had showed all his offensive limitations by getting repeatedly met at the rim by Utah's big men, he grabbed an offensive rebound and stuffed his first jam home.
You could feel the play released his tensions built up by a frustrating evening.
It also alleviated whatever pressure his teammates felt in clawing back against the Utes.
On the next play, Gordon closed out hard on Utah's leading scorer, Jordan Loveridge, to block a jumper while keeping the ball in play. The possession led to a running floater off the glass by Johnson that gave UA a 51-47 lead. It began a 16-2 Arizona run that incited the Utes to switch back into the zone defense they'd began the game with, but it was already too late.
Johnson led Arizona with 22 points on 50 percent shooting, and Gordon finished with 10 points and 12 boards.
Utah did all the right things to get Arizona off-kilter to begin the game. Larry Krystkowiak's team came out playing zone, using its length to jump into passing lanes to get tips and, hopefully, turnovers. The Utes also made the Wildcats make plays off the dribble, something nobody other than T.J. McConnell have a natural ability in doing. Even McConnell struggled with the Utes' length, turning the ball over four times and shooting 2-for-9.
Coming into the game, it was unclear if the Utes were ready to take the next step and join the very busy second-tier of the Pac-12. They left McKale with a loss, but certainly Krystkowiak and company could find comfort in how good the team looked.
Utah attacked the Wildcats like the Wildcats attack their opponents, and the obvious formula to beat Arizona became more clear. Matching Arizona with size, a few tricky tactics and talent gave the Utes a chance, but they were unlike Sean Miller's crew in experience.
Gordon and Johnson simply flipped a switch.
Miller might have been more proud of this win rather than any other. Not many things went right, but the Wildcats never looked broken and defeated -- or worried for that matter.
Arizona ended up shooting just 40 percent just like Utah but was focused on crashing the offensive glass. The Wildcats were exposed as a poor three-point shooting team by hitting 3-of-14 from deep, and coupled with the ineffectiveness from center Kaleb Tarczewski and, for the first half, Brandon Ashley, it was a major concern. While Gordon and the defense held Loveridge to 4-of-14 shooting and 13 points, Johnson had a rough go against Delon Wright, the upstart guard who led the Utes with 19 points, six rebounds, four assists and three steals.
That's a list of bad things, and the assumption might be the Wildcats would have something less than a nine-point win when that list was compiled during one game.
It was proof that with the character of the Wildcats, a win is always possible.
At this point, visits to the Bay Area next weekend and to the mountain schools in less than month could trip up the Wildcats.
But damn, the best ever discussion rages on.