Rebounding the difference as No. 10 Arizona outclasses No. 8 Utah

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TUCSON, Arizona — A dominant performance on the glass, combined with the “equation” of first half T.J. McConnell + second half Stanley Johnson equaled victory for No. 10 Arizona Saturday night, as they took care of No. 8 Utah by the final score of 69-51. The game represented a significant opportunity for the Utes, as a win would have been their first major “statement” as a member of the Pac-12.

However, after a quick start with Delon Wright scoring seven of their first ten points, Utah lost its stride and in the second half they were hit with an emphatic knockout punch. In the end, it was Arizona that made the statement: regardless of what happened in Corvallis last Sunday night, the road to the Pac-12 crown still runs through them.

McConnell scored 12 of his 16 points in the first half, picking up the slack for a team that outside of Brandon Ashley (ten points in the first half, 14 for the game) was held in check by the Utes until the latter stages of that period. But even with the Wildcats shooting 48 percent from the field they were able to make up for it on the glass, grabbing half of their missed shots and converting the eight offensive boards into eight points.

The second half was similar to the first, albeit with a different primary scorer for the Wildcats. After sitting out most of the first half with two early fouls, Johnson scored all 18 of his points as he proved to be too much for the Utes to handle. Add in Arizona grabbing nine more offensive rebounds, and a game that was viewed as a battle for conference supremacy turned into a laugher.

Last season, offensive rebounding was a strength for the Wildcats as they managed to rebound more than 36 percent of their missed shots. That allowed the Wildcats to somewhat mask their deficiencies in other areas on the offensive end of the floor, most notably perimeter shooting. That hasn’t been the case to this point in the season, as prior to Saturday Arizona finished with an offensive rebounding percentage above 40 percent in just one game (Oakland). By comparison, Arizona had 13 such efforts in 2013-14.

Utah entered the game ranked first in the Pac-12 in scoring defense (55.3), second in field goal percentage defense (36.6) and third in defensive rebounding percentage (74.2). And after a slow start Arizona was able to crack the Utah defense, with the offensive rebounds serving as “body blows” that added up as the game wore on. Utah couldn’t follow up their first shot defense with a rebound, and that proved to be their undoing.

From a scoring standpoint, an aggressive McConnell certainly helps the Wildcats moving forward as he has the ability to hurt teams in pick and roll situations as he did Utah in the first half. But if Arizona’s to meet (and exceed) last season’s achievements, players such as Johnson and Ashley would be better served to do the heavy lifting on that end of the floor. Ashley served as a quality supplement to McConnell in the first half, and Johnson showed the skill set that made him one of the nation’s top recruits in high school.

In wins over Colorado and Utah, Johnson averaged 20.0 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, which is a nice recovery after he like the rest of his teammates struggled in Corvallis. While Saturday’s win will undoubtedly serve as a statement of sorts it also needs to serve as a launching pad for the talented freshman, because if he’s on there aren’t too many players who can slow him down. That ultimately opens things up for Arizona in other areas of the floor, and even if the resulting shot doesn’t fall they have the ability to hunt down those misses and extend possessions.

That’s how things played out Saturday night, and in their emphatic win over a Utah team many viewed as their greatest threat Arizona put together a performance that if replicated can be their “road map” to Indianapolis.