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Second-half rally falls short as Arizona men’s basketball loses at Tennessee

arizona-wildcats-mens-basketball-recap-tennessee-volunteers-unbeaten-pac12-sec-2021 Brianna Paciorka/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

Among the many things that had gone right for Arizona during an 11-0 start to the season was not having to rely on one playing to carry the team on offense. That the was the complete opposite for much of the Wildcats’ 12th game, which resulted in their first loss of the season.

Bennedict Mathurin had 28 points but he had very little help from his teammates as No. 6 Arizona fell from the ranks of the unbeaten in falling 77-73 at No. 19 Tennessee on Wednesday night in Knoxville, Tenn.

The Wildcats (11-1) trailed by as many as 15 in the first half and was down 13 at the half yet rallied to tie it twice in the final six minutes. But the lack of any offense from non-Mathurins as well as heavy foul trouble kept Arizona from ever leading.

Mathurin, who was 8 of 16 from the field and added eight rebounds and five assists, was one of three UA players to foul out while all five starters had four fouls. Arizona’s starting frontcourt of Christian Koloko and Azuolas Tubelis combined for just 10 points and six rebounds while Kerr Kriisa had 11 points but missed seven of his 10 3-point attempts.

The UA shot 44.8 percent, including 28 percent in the first half, was outrebounded for the first time this season and turned it over 17 times yet still had a shot to win on the road thanks to a much stronger second half.

Arizona trailed 34-21 at the half, scoring 16 fewer points than in any previous opening 20 minutes. The Wildcats scored the first eight points after the break but along the way Tubelis picked up his third foul, going back to the bench after playing only six minutes in the first half.

A John Fulkerson 3 put Tennessee (9-2) up 44-33 with 16:29 left before Arizona ran off seven points in 38 seconds, including Kriisa’s third 3-pointer in the first four minutes of the second half and a transition dunk by Dalen Terry to get within 44-40 with 15:45 to go.

That would be the last time a UA player not named Mathurin would score for almost eight minutes

Kriisa, Mathurin and Christian Koloko also got to three fouls in the first eight minutes of the second half, then Tubelis picked up his fourth with 11:37 to go and Koloko joined him with 10:36 to go.

Tennessee build the lead back up to 12 before Terry scored on back-to-back possessions, the second off a Mathurin steal for a 3-point play to get within 60-53 with 7:37 remaining. Mathurin got his fourth foul and had to sit with 7:13 left, and in his absence the Wildcats went on a 9-2 run with Koloko’s putback tying it at 62 with 5:09 remaining.

The Vols led 63-62 with 4:08 left and was at the line when Kriisa was called for a technical. Tennessee hit three of the four foul shots to go up four, then after Justin Kier hit his third 3 Koloko fouled out with 3:25 to go.

Mathurin hit two free throws to tie it at 67 with 2:58 to go but the Vols up for good with 2:42 to go on a jumper by Fulkerson, who had 24 points and 10 rebounds.

Arizona started off slow for the fourth consecutive game, but unlike the previous three the sluggishness lasted a lot longer. The Wildcats trailed 16-2 a little more than five minutes into the game and had more turnovers than shots until midway through the first half, giving it away 12 times before the break.

The UA trailed 26-11 with just over four minutes left when its offense finally woke up, going on a 10-0 run that included back-to-back 3-pointers by Mathurin and Kriisa—after Arizona started 0 for 9 from outside—to cut the deficit to 26-21 with 1:40 to go.

The remainder of the first half was more of what happened prior to the run, though, with Tennessee scoring the final eight points to take a 13-point edge into the locker room.

Arizona is off until Dec. 30 when it is scheduled to visit UCLA as the second leg of a 4-game road trip. The Bruins are currently on a COVID pause, having had their last two games canceled.