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Bad offense, worse defense fuels Arizona’s loss at Utah in Kerr Kriisa’s debut

Photo courtesy Utah Athletics

In each of Arizona’s first four losses, either the defense didn’t show up or the offense had a rough night. On Thursday it was both.

The Wildcats had season lows in points and field goal percentage while allowing Utah to click on all cylinders offensively in a 73-58 setback in Salt Lake City, spoiling the debut of freshman point guard Kerr Kriisa.

It was the UA’s worst loss to the Utes since the infamous 1998 Elite Eight matchup that saw Utah win by 25.

Arizona (13-5, 7-5 Pac-12) shot 37 percent, including just 28.6 percent in the second half, while making only 2 of 9 3-pointers. Utah (8-7, 5-6) shot 57.7 percent in the second half and 50 percent in the game while making 8 of 15 3s despite entering the game as the second-worst 3-point shooting team in the Pac-12.

Arizona’s backcourt—which had been in desperate need of an extra body after Jemarl Baker Jr. suffered a season-ending injury a few weeks back—was abysmal on offense, combining to shoot 6 for 30 from the field. James Akinjo had 10 points but was 2 of 9 and went scoreless for the first 26 minutes, while Terrell Brown Jr. was 3 of 11 and Bennedict Mathurin was 1 of 6.

Dalen Terry and Kriisa both went scoreless, with Kriisa missing both of his 3-point attempts in his first game since coming off an NCAA suspension.

The Estonian played 19 minutes and finished with two assists and a steal.

Arizona’s frontcourt players provided almost all the offense, with Azuolas Tubelis scoring 17 on 5-of-7 shooting while Christian Koloko was 4 of 5 for nine points and Jordan Brown had eight on 4-of-9 shooting. But it was their inability to defend on the inside that had a greater impact, as Utah had 36 points in the paint and became only the second team this season to tie Arizona on the boards.

Arizona trailed 32-27 at the half and quickly fell behind by nine, going almost three minutes into the second half without scoring after managing only one point in the final 3:37 of the first half. Utah upped the lead to 46-31 with 15:05 left and were ahead by 18 less than six minutes into the second half.

A 9-0 Arizona run fueled by Akinjowho was scoreless until then—cut the deficit to 51-42 with 10:56 left. Akinjo had five points and two assists during the run, including a dime to a streaking Tubelis for a left-handed dunk.

But then Utah scored on its next five possessions as Arizona reverted to the defensive lapses that plagued them in the first 25 minutes of the game, as Utah rebuilt the lead back to 16 at 62-46 with 8:14 remaining.

Arizona held the Utes to only two points over the next five minutes, while on the other end it clawed back at the foul line. A Tubelis layup with 3:22 left pulled made it 64-54 despite the Wildcats going more than five minutes without a basket, but they couldn’t get any closer after that.

The Wildcats looked solid early, leading 15-10 and getting most of those points in the paint, before foul trouble and turnovers threw a wrench in their plans. Jordan Brown, Christian Koloko, Dalen Terry and Tubelis all had two fouls in the first half, while eight giveaways were turned into eight Utah points.

The Utes made six of their final 10 2-point shots in the first half after starting 3 of 8, yet Arizona still had a 26-23 lead with 3:37 to go before missing its final four shots and getting outscored 9-1 to enter the locker room down five.

Arizona returns to action Saturday at Colorado. The Wildcats beat the Buffaloes 88-74 at McKale Center in December.