SALT LAKE CITY
You don't have to play well to beat Utah, but you do have to look coordinated, run plays you've actually practiced, shoot without someone's elbow in your kisser, pass to a guy wearing the same color jersey and make most of your foul shots.
You can get away with a lot of goof-ups against the Utes, such as Mark Lyons did Sunday when he shot 1 for 9 from three-point distance. But in his 123rd college basketball game, Lyons has learned when it's time to try something else.
He took his eighth three-point attempt with 4:38 remaining Sunday, missing it, in a stomach-churning game that had evolved from a comfortable Arizona lead to a worrisome 56-54, how-did-we-get-ourselves-in-this-mess grind.
Over the next three minutes, the former Xavier guard, a put-it-all-on-me senior who has never met a crisis he didn't like, drove inside against a platoon of Utah tall guys and decided he would shoot the shortest shot in basketball, a layup. No matter how many hands were in his face and no matter how thick the jungle of bodies were in his way, he was going to take it on him to make good on his off-target treys.
"He's gonna do what he's gonna do," said UA senior Solomon Hill. "In those situations, I'm looking to get in position for a rebound."
Lyons scored both times and the Utes were done, 68-64.
"I'm definitely not intimidated," he said outside the UA's locker room before being introduced to UA president Ann Weaver Hart. "Sometimes you've gotta take it upon yourself to get it going."
Lyons has come to epitomize the 2012-13 Wildcats. This is a team that rarely dazzles you, a team that almost never causes you to say, "Wow, these guys are smokin'. " They don't go on big runs to bury anybody, and it's not a team that puts the hammer down and creates fear throughout the Pac-12.
They are grinders. This is the way it has been. And on Feb. 18, it's the way it's going to continue to be.
If you turned off your TV set as Arizona's 13-point lead disappeared, if you decided to swear off UA hoops for the rest of the season because you just can't take the drama, you had a much different feeling than Sean Miller.
"I'm elated to be leaving here with a win," said Miller, and he meant it - because when he arrived at the almost-comatose Huntsman Center on Sunday, he was fully aware that ASU's Herb Sendek and Colorado's Tad Boyle had left this place of long-ago basketball glory with season-staining losses.
"Last year, we were in that same situation about seven times, and I'm not sure we won even one of them," said Miller.
A lot of credit for beating Utah belongs to the Utes. There's a reason they are 3-10 in the conference and haven't won back-to-back Pac-12 games ever. The Utes fumbled the ball away, under duress, with 4:29 to go and with 2:12 remaining.
And when it absolutely, positively had to deny Lyons a path to the basket, it failed.
"We had mindless turnovers," said Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak. "But I was encouraged that we came back and were a couple of plays away from making it happen."
The Utes were left to wonder how in the name of Mark Lyons they were swept by Arizona this season, losing 60-57 in Tucson on a night Lyons went 1 for 6 from three-point range, and again Sunday when one stop - a block, a hand in the face, a better defensive position - could've won the game.
As the noose tightened in the second half, Krystkowiak switched to a triangle-and-two zone defense periodically, a scheme that almost chopped up the UA offense.
"It slowed us down," said Hill. "They were mixing it up, sometimes changing defenses on the same possession. It caused us some problems and changed the momentum."
Do you realize the irony? In the 1998 Elite Eight, Utah applied a rarely-used triangle-and-two defense against heavily-favored Arizona and routed the Wildcats 76-51, a game many UA fans regard as the most painful in school history.
But this time, against the Utes, with a chance to contend for the Pac-12 title at stake, the triangle-and-two didn't have enough oomph.
It wasn't payback. It was just an escape. By winning, Arizona is still within range of the league championship and a favorable seed in the NCAA tournament.
"A win is great here anytime, given the way Utah plays," said Hill. "It's good to be 21-4. I've never been 21-4 ever."
Hill's memory is a bit faulty, but that's understandable given the strain of a five-day road trip. Arizona opened 23-4 in his sophomore season, but things move so fast in this game that when someone says you're 21-4, it can sound like you've just won the lottery.
The Wildcats really didn't win anything Sunday, but their mission was not to lose. They left that to the Utes.
Contact reporter Greg Hansen firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4145. On Twitter @ghansen711