Utah Utes basketball hangs tough early, but falls at No. 6 Arizona

Utes were in control for much of the first half, but wore down in the second vs. Arizona’s size

Arizona guard Pelle Larsson, center, is squeezed between Utah guards Lazar Stefanovic, left, and Marco Anthony, right, while fighting through a pick in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Tucson, Ariz., Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022. (Kelly Presnell/Arizona Daily Star via AP)

Arizona forward Azuolas Tubelis (10) shoots over Utah guard Lazar Stefanovic (20) in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Tucson, Ariz., Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022. (Kelly Presnell/Arizona Daily Star via AP)

One glaring problem the University of Utah basketball team has had is a shortage of options along its frontline.

The University of Arizona was happy to exploit that fact during the second half on Saturday night.

Arizona’s size was too much for the Utes. Azuolas Tubelis, a 6-foot-11, second-year Lithuanian freshman, had a monster night, finishing with a career-high 32 points on 14-for-24 shooting to go along with eight rebounds and five assists as the No. 6 Wildcats took charge in the second half for an 82-64 win at the McKale Center.

Tubelis’ damage, a big part of the Wildcats’ 56 points in the paint, came as Utah (8-9, 1-6 Pac-12) was without its center, Branden Carlson, who underwent an appendectomy on Jan. 8. Lahat Thioune started in his place for the second straight game, finishing with 10 points and two boards, all of it coming after the outcome was no longer in doubt.

“I thought they wore us down, they have elite size at the 4 and 5-spot, but their guards are big, strong and athletic as well,” Utes head coach Craig Smith said. “I thought they really hurt us with some high-low stuff where they got some chip shots at the rim. We knew that could be an issue.”

Utah spent much of the first half in control, then kept contact in the early minutes of the second half as Arizona leaned on the Utes. They were within one at 46-45 with 12:24 to play, but the Wildcats (14-1, 4-0 Pac-12) reassumed control, embarking on a 21-0 run across 7:27. At one point, Tubeis scored on three consecutive possessions, two layups wrapped around a transition dunk. The second layup gave Arizona a 56-45 lead with 9:46 to play. That lead ballooned to as many as 22 at one point.

Playing in arguably the Pac-12′s toughest road environment, against an Arizona team that is among the leaders nationally in tempo, Utah was the one at the outset controlling how this game would be played.

The Utes were the ones controlling tempo, walking the ball up the floor, often bleeding the shot clock to single digits in an effort to get a clean look. They opened the game hitting six of their first eight shots, and while Arizona was making some hay in the halfcourt, it wasn’t doing much running.

Utah led by six on two separate occasions inside the final 6:00 of the half, but Arizona began to find some daylight. A midrange jumper by Pac-12 Player of the Year candidate Benedict Mathurin brought the Wildcats to within one at 28-27, a Christian Koloko second-chance bucket at the rim gave them the lead at 30-28 with 1:55 before halftime.

Arizona stretched that lead to six, but credit to Utah for having an answer via a Gabe Madsen 3-pointer from the left wing after his defender flew by after a ball fake. That triple sent the Utes to the locker room trailing, 34-31. The Wildcats got to that point in spite of turning the ball an uncharacteristic 10 times, while shooting just 1-for-12 from deep.

“These teams, they just have so much horsepower, versatility, and they can play a lot of different ways,” Smith said. “They can play big, they can play small, they can play super athletic, so what seems like a hole, or an opening, it closes really quickly when you’re on offense.”

Utes pick up 2022 commitment from NBA Academy Latin America

In the middle of Saturday’s game, the Utes picked up a commitment from Wilguens Exacte Jr., a 6-foot-5 wing currently with NBA Academy Latin America. Exacte Jr. is originally from Montreal.

Exacte’s recruitment to Utah began last month when the NBA Academy teams from Latin America and Africa came to Salt Lake City to play a two-day event that included Real Salt Lake Academy and Layton Christian Academy. Exacte held scholarship offers from East Carolina and George Mason.

For now, Utah is out of scholarships for 2022-23 with Exacte’s recruitment, but that could change if players opt for the NCAA Transfer Portal after the season. Within that factor, the Utes have five players in their fourth year of college, but have more eligibility to use thanks to last season being free eligibility-wise due to the COVID-19 pandemic.