LAS VEGAS — Fourth-ranked Arizona will face tomorrow a hungry Utah team that has won four of its last five game after losing an overtime game against the Wildcats in Salt Lake City on Feb. 19.
The Utes (21-10 overall) kept their slim NCAA tournament hopes alive with a 67-61 victory over Washington in front of a partisan Utah crowd at the MGM Grand Garden Arena this afternoon. Larry Krystowiak’s team is not only playing for its postseason life, it is playing for respect after losing twice to the Wildcats in the regular season.
Utah is No. 80 in the latest RPI, while Arizona is No. 1.
“A lot is on the line for them and us,” said junior guard Delon Wright, an aggressive player who led the Utes with 15 points against Washington, nine of which came at the free-throw line.
“They’re playing for a No. 1 seed. For us, we’re taking it one game at a time and playing for a chance to be in the championship here.”
A loss by Arizona to Utah would likely knock the Wildcats from No. 1 in the RPI. It would also mean they would lose consecutive games and be 4-4 in their last eight games. Arizona would still be at worst a No. 2 seed.
Utah has no such luxury despite winning seven of its last 10 games.
“We have a lot to play for, but one thing I learned going against Arizona this year is you can’t get caught up on things,” said sophomore guard Brandon Taylor, who infamously missed three consecutive free throw attempts in overtime against Arizona after he was fouled on a three-point attempt.
“We have to maintain our composure. That’s what we learned the most against them: Keep your composure. You have to play on. If we maintain our composure, we have a chance.”
The atmosphere at MGM Grand Garden Arena will be electric with Utah and Arizona having by far the most fans in Las Vegas. The crowd element is important for Utah, which was 18-2 at home and 2-8 on the road. The Utes won their first “neutral” game of the season against Washington today.
Neutral is in quotations because the crowd was decidedly in Utah’s favor.
Utah's Taylor on #ArizonaWildcats:: "They're No. 4, but at the end of the day, we're still in the same conference. We can compete w/them."
Arizona gets a similar rise out of its crowd having finished 18-0 at McKale Center. The Wildcats won two neutral-site games in the Preseason NIT at Madison Square Garden in November.
“When you go on road games, you have the whole crowd against you,” said sophomore guard Jordan Loveridge, who actually had a worse game against Arizona this year at Salt Lake City, making only one of 11 field goal attempts.
“With games like this, you build confidence off the fans, knowing that people are with you. It gives you that extra energy when you hear the fans. It should be a great atmosphere for both us and Arizona.”
To a player, the Utes talked about rebounding and playing against Arizona’s defense as the most difficult challenges. Utah kept it close in Salt Lake City, outrebounding the Wildcats 37-31. Aaron Gordon fouled out with almost 9 minutes left in regulation, helping Utah’s cause.
In the first game, Arizona won the rebounding battle 40-29 in its 65-56 victory at McKale Center. The Wildcats had 20 offensive boards and outscored the Utes 19-6 on second-chance points.
“They’re a very, very physical team,” Taylor said. “They’re rebounding machines. They do a lot of things really well actually.
“It’s a battle. We know it’s a battle. We know we can compete with those guys. We can compete with the top teams in the country. We can compete with them. It’s really good for us to play them twice already to know what we can do.”