When the Arizona Wildcats held off UConn to come away with the road victory Sunday, both the fans and the media celebrated a team that might be on track to disproving the doubters.
When the Wildcats fell behind the Utah Valley Wolverines by double digits on Thursday, it looked like they might be the team that everyone thought would struggle to get into the NCAA Tournament.
Let’s get to both the problems that caused them to fall into an early hole and the solutions that allowed them to climb back out and escape with an 80-69 win.
After a forgettable first half that had Arizona Twitter sharing info about the last non-conference home loss, the Wildcats came out hot in the second. They went on a 13-2 run over the first 2:26 of the half to grab the 45-43 lead.
Coming out of the locker room, it was Brandon Randolph who took control. The sophomore got things rolling with a three-pointer. It was a welcomed site after his 1-for-5 shooting performance in the first 20 minutes. By the end of that run, he was 5-for-11 from the field with four three-pointers.
The entire team looked different. In the first half, they shot 39%. On the other end, they allowed the Wolverines to shoot 50%.
By the time the second half’s first media timeout rolled around, the Wildcats had bumped their shooting percentage up to 54%. They also got busy on defense, allowing Utah Valley to shoot only 32% over the final 20 minutes.
Arizona also cut down on their turnovers. The Wildcats cut their give-aways down by more than half, turning the ball over only five time in the second half after an 11-turnover first.
The Wildcats were hot from distance for the entire 40 minutes. Even when Utah Valley ran out to a double-digit lead in the first half, they allowed Arizona to go 4-for-8 from three.
The Wildcats shot even better from outside in the last 20 minutes. As a team, they went 8-for-14 for 57% shooting over the final half.
Every Wildcat except Chase Jeter and Ira Lee made at least one three. The team was led by Randolph (4-for-6) and Dylan Smith (2-for-3), both of whom shot 67% from distance for the game.
Dylan Smith leads bench production
Led by Smith, Arizona once again saw good numbers from the bench. The Wildcat reserves outscored the Wolverine subs by a margin of 23-12.
Smith put up a season-high 13 points on 4-for-8 shooting, including his two shots from distance. It marked his third straight game with double-digit scoring. Prior to this stretch, he only had one game in double digits this season. Given his hot hand, Smith played starter minutes, going for a season-high 26 minutes.
Ryan Luther was the second-leading producer from the bench. He ended the night with seven points and three rebounds in 21 minutes.
In Arizona’s game at UConn, they were able to effectively maintain a lead. Against Utah Valley, the Wildcats struggled getting or maintaining the advantage until late in the game.
The Wolverines started off hot, running out to a 7-2 lead in the first 27 seconds of the game.
Later in the half, Utah Valley used a 22-7 run to build their lead to ten. They had stretched that to 12 by the end of the half, going into the locker room ahead 41-29.
Giving up points off turnovers
The Wildcats turned the ball over 11 times in the first half, a big reason they fell behind by as many as 12 points. The inability to protect the ball led to 19 points for the Wolverines in the first half alone.
Arizona was able to cut down on the give-aways in the second half, but still ended up with 16 turnovers in the game. Utah Valley capitalized on that to the tune of 24 points off turnovers.
Both the difficulty containing the Wolverines’ scoring runs and the inability to protect the ball were likely related to the final problem the Wildcats ran into: foul trouble.
Both of Arizona’ captains struggled with foul trouble throughout the game. Justin Coleman was especially hampered, picking up three fouls in the first half. Less than five minutes into the second, Jeter and Coleman were both on the bench.
After fouling out against UConn in his last outing, Jeter looked like he was on his way to a similar fate on Thursday night. He picked up his third foul with 17:42 to go in the second half, and was immediately subbed out of the game. Coleman joined him on the bench less than a minute later after picking up his fourth.
It’s not difficult to imagine that Arizona would not have fallen so far behind in the first half if Jeter and Coleman hadn’t been consigned to the bench. And they weren’t the only ones who had difficulty guarding without fouling.
Smith and Brandon Randolph also ended the game with four fouls. Alex Barcello committed three of his own. As a team, they sent the Wolverines to the free throw line 24 times. Utah Valley turned those trips into 17 points.