Between three big wins and a critical trip to Washington, the Arizona Wildcats paused Saturday to look in the mirror and see who they really are.
The reflection was not terribly pretty, at least for most of the Wildcats' 70-61 win over 11th-place Utah at McKale Center.
While trailing by 13 points early in the game, then hanging on by just a basket or two until the final minute, the Wildcats appeared to be just another team fighting to stay afloat in a mediocre Pac-12 race.
Arizona improved to 18-8 overall and 9-4 in the Pac-12, thanks to some clutch late-game play and overall performances by Kyle Fogg (17 points), Nick Johnson (18 points) and Brendon Lavender (4 of 5 three-point shooting).
But they also:
• Allowed Utah (5-20, 2-11) to shoot 50 percent from the field, including 9 of 18 three-pointers.
• Missed nine of their first 10 shots and hit only 33 percent from the field in the first half.
• Trailed by eight points at halftime, at home, to a team that had lost all five of its previous Pac-12 road games by an average of 17.6 points.
"We were a disaster for a significant portion of the game," said UA coach Sean Miller, who also used the words "alarming," "disappointing" and "pathetic" to describe the Wildcats' effort and confidence.
The Wildcats dug themselves into an immediate hole, trailing 12-2 after five minutes, and Miller could have written it off to simple psychology.
After all, they were riding a three-game winning streak, with an improbable sweep at California and Stanford, followed by a big home win over second-place Colorado on Thursday. And next week, they might even have a chance to jump into first place during a trip to Washington.
In between, there was Utah. A sandwich game, as they call it in Las Vegas, the one in the middle that's supposed to be hard to get motivated for.
And the Wildcats did not appear fired up, especially early. Not only were they missing shots, but their defense - the one that held Stanford to 25.4 percent shooting a week earlier - allowed the Utes to hit 54.5 percent from the field in the first half.
"We gotta come out better," said Fogg, who did not start the game because he was late to a pregame walk-through. "That's on the upperclassmen and myself. We can't come out to a team like that and not play our hardest because we think we're going to get the win."
The Wildcats can't come out like that, Miller said, because they really aren't much different from even a team like Utah if they don't try. Once again, Miller referred to the Wildcats' "razor-thin" margin of error.
"Those were two evenly matched teams today, and there's a reason," Miller said. "We play seven players and if three or four of those guys don't play as hard as they are capable of … I'm going to tell you that you could pick any team in the nation to come to our home court and it would go just like it did today."
What's more, while the Wildcats were losing confidence with each missed shot, the Utes played like a team that had nothing to lose, one that enjoyed playing before roughly three times the number of folks who show up at Huntsman Center these days.
"I was smiling a lot," said Utah forward Cedric Martin, who tied with center Jason Washburn for the Utes' scoring lead by netting 15 points. "This was a really fun place to play."
The Utes also caused trouble for Arizona on the other end of the floor, simply by sitting back in a zone defense that dared the Wildcats to shoot.
Miller called that a smart move and the stats prove it. Arizona made only 4 of 12 from three-point range in the first half.
UA players were so open "you could tie your shoes, roll the ball in your hands and shoot it - and miss," Miller said. "I don't have an answer for that one. … And you know what, when we started to miss, we got really tight. When we got really tight, we got away from moving the ball and we got away from getting the ball close to the basket. We were taking threes hoping that they were going to go in."
Fortunately for Arizona, they eventually did. The Wildcats finished with a respectable 11-for-24 effort from three-point range in part because Lavender hit 4 for 4 from long range after halftime.
Three of Lavender's four threes came during a 15-0 UA run that changed the game early in the second half. UA led 46-43 with 12:05 left after the run and, while Utah immediately rattled off seven straight points, the Wildcats did not disappear at the end.
Lavender's fourth three-pointer tied the game at 61 with four minutes left. Then, Johnson hit one with 1:24 left to give Arizona a 64-61 lead and Utah lost the ball - and its chance to stay in the game - on its next possession when Kareem Storey stepped on the baseline.
From there, UA hit six free throws over the final 29 seconds - four by Jesse Perry and two by Johnson - for the final margin.
It was the key plays down the stretch that Miller said he was encouraged by, even if he couldn't quite get the bad moments out of his mind.
"The team was resilient," Miller said. "We'll take the win but I'm tired of watching guys from the bench for 8-10 minutes, and it's almost like, 'You can't catch. You can't shoot. Is everything OK, fellas?' "
At the end, it was. Barely.
• Who: UA at Wash. St.
• When: 7 p.m. Thursday
• TV: FSAZ