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Arizona catches fire in second half to avoid upset vs. Utah Valley

Georgia Southern v Arizona Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats’ prolonged non-conference home winning streak will live to see another game.

But for 30 minutes or so, it appeared to be in serious jeopardy.

Arizona rallied from a double-digit first-half deficit to beat Utah Valley 80-69 on Thursday, its 52nd straight home win over a non-Pac-12 foe.

The Wildcats (7-2) trailed 41-29 at the half after struggling in every aspect of the game, but began the second half on a torrid 16-2 run that took just 1:58.

Brandon Randolph, who finished with a team-best 16 points, knocked down four 3s during that stretch, pumping his fist as he gave Arizona a 45-43 lead.

Utah Valley called a timeout to stop the bleeding and continued to hang around, even leading by five with 11 minutes to play after a 3 and two free throws by Conner Toolson, but the Wildcats proved to be too much, outscoring the Wolverines 51-28 in the second half.

“I haven’t seen anybody do that for us in McKale since Gabe York in his senior day against Stanford,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said of Randolph’s outburst. “I mean, those were four big, big shots. He gave everybody confidence. I think everybody lost confidence, from the fans, to the coaches, to the cheerleaders. We were all looking out there saying, ‘this doesn’t look right.’ And that’s what a player like Brandon can do for you.”

While Randolph ignited the comeback, it was a total team effort. Dylan Smith scored 13 points off the bench, Justin Coleman had 15 points, despite battling foul trouble all night, and Arizona’s two power forwards scored some big baskets down the stretch.

Ryan Luther drove for a layup to make it 65-60 then Emmanuel Akot drained a 3 to extend the lead to eight with 5:45 left. Luther scored again to push it to 70-60 with five minutes left, Arizona’s largest lead at the time.

Both finished with seven points.

There’s also Brandon Williams, who had 15 points, 10 rebounds and five assists to record his first college double-double.

The freshman never thought it would come via rebounds.

“When someone told me on the bench, I was shocked,” he said. “When they said ‘you have a double-double,’ I thought it was assists. But to take the load off guys like Ryan Luther and Chase (Jeter) and Ira (Lee) as a guard, that goes a long way.”

The Wildcats shot 61 percent in the second half and a scorching 8 for 14 from distance, finishing 12 for 22 from 3, their best shooting night of the year.

“Utah Valley’s big and strong and smart and they tried to clog the lane. That’s why we had so many charges. We drove to shoot, you gotta drive to pass, but we adjusted,” Miller said. “To our players’ credit some of the best moments in the second half, we adjusted to the defense, guys put the ball on the floor to pass it, the ball moved better. And that’s what really broke the game open.”

“And we had a player go unconscious,” Miller added. “(Randolph) came off screens, made the shots and they all mattered. Every one of them, no doubt.”

Arizona also held UVU to 32 percent shooting in the second half and 6 for 26 from 3 overall, even though Utah Valley was shooting over 40 percent from distance on the season.

“You have to give great effort to do that against them because they cut, they move, and sometimes in a man-to-man, it’s like the running game in football. You just get two yards, why are you running, coach? But if you just keep hitting it, keep hitting it, all of a sudden you can wear the other team down,” Miller said. “Man-to-man defense can do that to an offense. Those 3s aren’t as easy. The cuts aren’t as easy. And I thought we did a good job of sustaining our effort.”

And, no, there was no fiery halftime speech that led to UA’s resurgence.

“We really didn’t get after them a whole lot at halftime. I know that might be surprising,” Miller said. “I mean there were times in the game I certainly did, but I thought it was needed. It wasn’t any for any other reason than our team doesn’t have a great margin for error, especially against a team as skilled and as experienced as Utah Valley is.”

Miller also brushed off the notion that Arizona overlooked Utah Valley, even though it would have been easy to, since the Wildcats won a big game UConn last Sunday and face another tough road test this Sunday at Alabama.

“Just the opposite,” Miller said. “We’ve had some excellent practices, our guys understood and so did we as a coaching staff that ... we were in for a fight and it was just great for us to respond the way we did it halftime.”

The Wildcats looked good early, racing out to an 18-11 lead after some hot 3-point shooting. But they watched that lead evaporate in a hurry, thanks to some porous defense and 11 first-half turnovers, which Utah Valley turned into 19 points.

The Wolverines, who shot 50 percent in the first half, answered UA’s strong start with a 9-0 run to take a 20-18 lead, starting 8 for 12 from the field.

UVU’s lead expanded to 27-22 after a 3 by Jake Toolson, then TJ Washington drilled a triple from the top of the key and drove for a layup to make it a 10-point game.

Conner Toolson later added a 3 to make it a 12-point advantage, sending the McKale Center crowd into a slumber as the teams headed for the locker room.

But Randolph woke it up, picking an opportune time to break out of a 1-for-11 3-point shooting slump.

“I definitely got going and my teammates found me,” he said. “I think it hyped me up and it hyped the crowd up, it hyped our team up, and I think it helped us move into the game a little bit more.”