Dusan Ristic had not made a 3-pointer all season heading into Saturday’s game against the Utah Utes.
Now he’s made three.
The big man went 3-3 from behind the arc in a 23-point effort as the Arizona Wildcats staved off the visiting Utes 74-73 for their sixth straight win.
Playing the best basketball of his career, Ristic has been asked several times after games this season if he thought a particular outing was his best.
Normally, he is unsure. After Saturday’s game he was not.
“I think this was my best game at Arizona so far,” said Ristic, who was 9-11 from the field with seven rebounds and two blocks. “I want to answer that question for you guys.”
After the Wildcats squandered a double-digit second-half lead, Ristic scored on the low block to put Arizona ahead 69-68 with 2:31 left, then sank his third 3 of the night to extend UA’s lead to four with 1:40 left.
The big man hollered “let’s go!” as Utah called timeout, and later made two free throws to put Arizona 74-70 with a minute left.
“I was so surprised that he took the 3,” said head coach Sean Miller who mentioned Ristic hardly takes them in practice.
“I couldn’t believe it. ... We really ran that play to go to Deandre (Ayton). Try to throw it to him over the top, but he decided to let one go, and it went in. And I’m really happy it went in.”
The Wildcats got a stop following Ristic’s clutch shot, but Justin Bibbins drained a 3 after a UA turnover to make it a one-point game with nine seconds left.
As Allonzo Trier tried to free himself on the ensuing inbounds play, he was called for his fifth foul, giving the Utes a chance to pull off a stunning victory.
But after a timeout, Utah’s play resulted in Donnie Tillman catching the inbounds pass directly underneath the basket with Emmanuel Akot drapped all over him, and all the Ute big man could do is force up an errant shot which was corralled by Arizona with less than a second left to play.
Keanu Pinder missed the front end of a one-and-one (it should have been a two-shot foul), but the Utes’ subsequent full-court heave was well off the mark.
“I’m glad we had one timeout. I was able to at least talk to the guys,” Miller said of Utah’s inbounds play. “We saw their initial alignment. Obviously [Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak] can change it. But ui he would change it, I think that’s to our advantage. If he doesn’t change it, you could at least get everybody locked in. I think we would have said looking at that that they were trying to get a drive for Tillman — four seconds, a big strong physical player.
“Emmanuel Akot was a good matchup for him, and Emmanuel did a good job. I think he created some doubt on whether he would be able to get open if he went up towards the elbow and I almost feel like he broke the play off. I don’t know if I’m right.
“(Tillman) caught the ball under the backboard and Emmanuel’s a tough kid that has size to him, and I don’t know if he got a good shot off. So I like the way Emmanuel defended, but you don’t want your guys to be apprehensive. You don’t want to foul, but the minute you start talking about don’t foul, don’t foul, the ball is right under the backboard, it doesn’t favor the less physical player. The way they got the ball (after Trier’s offensive foul), I would say it would be tough to go two calls in a row there, so we did a good job of not fouling.”
The McKale Center crowd could finally breathe after the final buzzer sounded, though maybe this was the result it should have expected.
After all, Arizona has been blowing double-digit leads only to win by a narrow margin seemingly every game this month and this one was no different.
Despite being without Rawle Alkins for the second straight game, Arizona shot 64 percent and 10-18 from 3, and looked well on its way to a convincing victory, leading Utah by 13 early in the second half and 43-33 at halftime.
But foul trouble, turnovers, and hot shooting by Utah propelled the Utes to a 15-2 run which gave them a 66-65 lead with 5:38 left, their first lead all game.
Utah held a 15-8 advantage in turnovers and made 18 free throws to UA’s six — hence their ability to take a lead, despite only shooting 44 percent.
“Fouling has plagued our defense,” Miller said. “That’s one thing I know. We have to get better at that, but it was a tough game. Playing through that, not letting it steal your confidence and mind, we did a good job of that.
“We entered that last four minute segment and that might have been our best basketball of the second half. Both on offense and defense. We got some stops that we needed.”
Trier, who had four fouls at the time and eventually picked up a fifth, hit a fallaway jumper to give Arizona a 67-66 lead with 5:12 left, before David Collette tipped in a miss to put the Utes on top.
That’s when Ristic scored Arizona’s final seven points to lead the Wildcats to victory — and cross the 1,000-point mark in his career.
“He told me in the locker room that this was his 1,000th point,” Miller said, “which reminds you that these guys always keep their stats. But the fact that he scored 1,000 points on that 3-point shot ... is even a better story. Today was his day, and I center that on him because we played through adversity, and we needed him to have a big day, and he did.”
Deandre Ayton (15), Parker Jackson-Cartwright (12), and Trier (16), also scored in double figures. Ayton made a 3, too, though Miller isn’t about to let that become a regular occurrence.
“Let’s see what they do next game,” Miller joked about his jump-shooting big men. “I hope they’re 0-0.”
Sedrick Barefield had a game-high 26 points for Utah and was responsible for drawing Trier’s third foul with 11:45 left with a bad (but effective) flop.
Then Trier notched his fourth foul a few minutes later — a turning point in the game, especially because Jackson-Cartwright had picked up his fourth foul with 8:38 left.
Four straight free throws by Justin Bibbins cut Arizona’s lead to 65-58 then a 3 by Tyler Rawson made it a four-point game.
After Akot clanked two free throws, Parker Van Dyke drained a 3 from the wing to make it 65-64, and soon after Utah would take its first lead with Collette’s putback.
But Arizona did just enough yet again down the stretch to improve to 18-4 overall and 8-1 in the Pac-12. Five of UA’s last six wins have been by single digits.
“One thing is for sure,” Miller said, “our guys understand how hard it is to win games. ... But I give [them] credit for finding a way.”
The Wildcats return to the hardwood Wednesday when they face the Washington State Cougars in Pullman.
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire