SALT LAKE CITY — Few things have been easy for the Arizona Wildcats since forward Brandon Ashley was hurt earlier this month, and Wednesday was no exception.
Utah standout Delon Wright made a critical turnover with 24 seconds left, and the Wildcats hit 5 of 6 free throws after that in their 67-63 overtime win at Utah on Thursday at the Huntsman Center.
Counting the Cal game when Ashley was hurt on Feb. 1, the Wildcats have played two regulation games decided by two points, a double-overtime loss at ASU and Wednesday night’s overtime game. Their only non nail-biter was a 76-54 win over Oregon State at McKale Center on Feb. 9.
This time, the Wildcats survived the fact that Utah out-rebounded them 37-31 and that forward Aaron Gordon fouled out in regulation for the first time this season.
“It was a great road win,” UA coach Sean Miller said. “It was very similar to the Cal game, and even the ASU game and Oregon game. We’ve been in a lot of them so winning one of these feels great.
The win moved Arizona to 24-2 overall and 11-2 in the Pac-12, and Utah dropped to 17-9 and 6-8. The Wildcats were to travel to Colorado immediately after Wednesday night’s game and prepare for a Saturday game with the Buffaloes.
“It feels really good, but the bottom line is we came here to get two wins,” said guard Nick Johnson, who led the Wildcats with 15 points along with guard Gabe York. “The atmosphere was great here. We had to buckle down, get some rebounds and just make some plays.”
With UA up 62-60 entering the final 44 seconds of overtime, Wright threw the ball straight out of bounds from the top of the key, apparently trying an alley-oop pass. Wright clutched his hands to his head after the error, and Johnson hit two free throws with 21 seconds left, giving the Wildcats a 64-60 lead.
Utah’s Dallin Bachynski scored inside to cut it to 64-62 with 8.8 seconds left, but it wasn’t enough for the Utes. McConnell hit 1 of 2 free throws to put UA ahead by three, and the Wildcats fouled Utah’s Brandon Taylor before he had a chance to take a potentially game-tying three-point shot.
Taylor then missed 1 of 2 free throws, and Johnson took two more free throws with 1.9 seconds left for the final 67-63 margin.
“It was the clutch free throws from Nick that did it,” guard T.J. McConnell said, and Miller expounded on that point after Johnson had struggled with his shot over the past two weeks.
On Wednesday, Johnson was 4 for 10 from the field and hit 6 of 7 free throws.
“I’m really proud of Nick,” Miller said. “He had an incredible game.”
Arizona’s Rondae Hollis-Jefferson gave the Wildcats a 60-58 lead early in overtime on an offensive rebound, but Johnson missed a chance to put the Wildcats further ahead when he missed the front end of a one-and-one.
But Taylor had bigger problems at the line: He missed all three free throws he had with 2:06 left, and Hollis-Jefferson scored again to put UA up by four.
Wright hit two free throws with 1:18 remaining to put the game at 62-60 entering the final minute. McConnell missed a layup with 46 seconds left, and the ball went out of bounds in Utah’s favor, giving the Utes the ball and 44 seconds left to possibly win or tie the game before Wright threw it away.
The Wildcats actually shot worse (42.9 percent from the field) than Utah (43.4) and had fewer offensive rebounds (11) than Utah (13) — after the Wildcats had 20 offensive boards against Utah last month at McKale Center.
But the Utes coughed up 16 turnovers and hit just 59.1 percent of their free throws, and standout forward Jordan Loveridge was just 1 of 12 from the field.
“We did a good job on him, Aaron and Rondae,” Johnson said.
Hollis-Jefferson came through with 13 points and four rebounds while playing 31 minutes off the bench. Miller said he opted to start York in his place in order to inject confidence into York, and it paid off. York had 15 points on 6-for-10 shooting and hit 3 of 6 three-point attempts.
Miller said he would probably stick with York in the starting lineup for the near future.
After Utah began closing in on the Wildcats midway through the second half, and taking a 53-52 lead with 3:40 left when Loveridge hit a pair of free throws, Johnson hit a 17-footer to put Arizona ahead 56-55 with 2:15 left.
That lead held entering the final minute, though Loveridge hit 1 of 2 free throws to tie the game at 56 with 28 seconds left. However, the Wildcats couldn’t close out the game in regulation despite having a final chance to score.
After UA ran the ball downcourt, Johnson ran into trouble dribbling on the wing and called for a timeout with 3.4 seconds left.
After the timeout, McConnell inbounded from midcourt and received the ball back on the wing, then drove inside but pulled up and missed a 6-footer.
The Wildcats were hurt down the stretch after Gordon fouled out with 8:41 left, having scored just three points with three rebounds.
Arizona took a 46-34 lead on a jumper from McConnell with 13:40 left but the Utes scored eight straight points to cut it to four points to bring the Huntsman Center crowd of 14,266 to its feet.
The Utes then cut it to 52-51 on a three-pointer from Brandon Taylor with 4:31 left and the game stayed close the rest of the way.
In the first half, Arizona went on a 14-0 run and took a 35-26 halftime lead over Utah.
Almost like in their game with the Utes last month at McKale Center, when Utah took an early 12-2 lead, the Wildcats struggled early and trailed 16-11. But they rattled off a 14-point run to go ahead 25-16 and held on to a big lead from there.
The Wildcats nearly made it 38-26 on a last-second three-point shot from Jordin Mayes but that shot was later called off.