It is Arizona’s ninth straight victory, improving to 12-3 overall and 2-0 in the Pac-12.
Arizona led 46-32 at halftime and looked well on its way to a comfortable win, but Utah made its first six 3s in the second half and even used a five-point play — yes, those exist — to tie the game with 6:10 in regulation and later with 3:35 left.
After Brandon Randolph converted an and-one to extend UA’s lead to 77-72, Utah’s Justin Bibbins sank a 3 off a screen while UA center Dusan Ristic was called for a foul for pushing David Collette under the basket.
Collette made the front end of the one-and-one, then sank the second free throw to knot the game at 77.
But Deandre Ayton spun and scored on UA’s next possession and Rawle Alkins sank five straight free throws as part of an 11-0 run that allowed Arizona to re-take the lead and pull away.
Ayton had a game-high 24 points (10-15 FG) and 14 rebounds. The 7-footer had several dunks causing Bill Walton to make elephant sounds and be concerned that Ayton was going to alter the Earth’s axial tilt.
Ayton did not do that, but he did carry UA’s offense in the second half, tallying 19 points in the period.
Alkins added 22 points (6-13 FG) and seven rebounds. Arizona, clearly the bigger and more athletic team, doubled up Utah on the glass, 46-23.
Arizona had 23 second-chance points.
A few days after Sean Miller called Parker Jackson-Cartwright a “perfect point guard” for the Wildcats, PJC posted a season-high 19 points, shooting 4-6 from the field, 3-4 from 3, and 8-8 from the free-throw line.
The senior, one point shy of his career-high, had 13 points in the first half, leading Arizona’s offense as Ayton and Allonzo Trier got off to slow starts.
Trier finished with a season-low seven points on 2-5 shooting, but did add five assists.
Arizona held Utah to 37 percent shooting in the first half as its defense continued to look improved, but all that progress was undone in the second half.
The Utes scored 50 points and went 9-14 from 3 in the period. Overall, they shot 44 percent from the field and 12-26 from beyond the arc.
Sedrick Barefield went 6-11 from 3 and finished with a team-high 23 points. Bibbins had 14 points and eight assists, while Collette had 19 points, proving to be a difficult matchup for Ristic.
Ristic had 11 points, nine rebounds, and even three assists, but struggled mightily defensively.
Arizona’s bench outscored Utah’s 11-10. Randolph led it with six points in 12 minutes.
In the first half, the Wildcats eviscerated Utah’s defense with dribble penetration. In the second half, they mostly relied on Ayton on the low block.
Arizona shot 50 percent for the game, and scored 44 points in the paint. Wildcats not named Parker Jackson-Cartwright were just 1-8 from behind the arc. Alex Barcello played six minutes and missed two open 3s.
Arizona continued its strong free throw shooting, sinking 30 of 36 attempts.
The Wildcats led by as many as 17 points in the first half and Utah cut the deficit to eight before UA extended it back to 14 at the break.
The Utes never led in the game.
Arizona returns to action Saturday at noon when it travels to Boulder, Colorado to face the Colorado Buffaloes (9-6, 1-2 Pac-12).
Colorado knocked off No. 4 ASU in overtime on Thursday night.
If the Wildcats beat the Buffs, and the Utes beat the Sun Devils, ASU would likely already be out of Pac-12 title contention.
By beating Utah, Arizona has set itself up for an incredibly long winning streak. The Wildcats’ lowest win probability in the next 11 games, per KenPom, is 76 percent when they face Washington in Seattle on Feb. 3.
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire