Unranked Utah‘s biggest victory of the year, an 81-66 upset of No. 4 Arizona in the teams’ Pac-12 opener Thursday night, came exactly 10 years after the death of Rick Majerus, the legendary coach who led the Utes to the 1998 national title game.
Majerus, who died of heart failure on Dec. 1, 2012, at 64 years old, led Utah to a 76-51 victory over top-seeded Arizona in the Elite Eight in 1998 to advance to the Final Four that year.
When asked by a reporter about the anniversary, Utah head coach Craig Smith said his team didn’t know about it entering the game, but he said he has always admired Majerus, the only head coach to lead Utah to the national title game.
“I remember as a young coach, when he was doing TV for a while, I would just love to listen to him because of his detail and ability to communicate,” Smith said after his team’s home win over the Wildcats on Thursday, two weeks after it had suffered a loss to Sam Houston State. “What a legendary figure. It’s pretty cool. But we did not share that with our guys, but I am going to share that tomorrow.”
Majerus, an assistant with Al McGuire’s 1977 Marquette team that won a national championship, coached Utah from 1989 to 2004. During that stretch, Utah reached the NCAA tournament 10 times.
Thursday’s game was the program’s first win over an Associated Press top-five team since Dec. 30, 2000, when it defeated then-No. 1 Alabama, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. The program had lost 12 games in a row against top-five teams prior to Thursday’s win.
The Wildcats, ranked first in the country with a 64.5% clip inside the arc, struggled throughout their conference opener. After finishing 9-for-33 in the first half and entering the break with a 42-25 deficit, Arizona couldn’t close the gap in the second half. Although the Wildcats pulled within six points with 14:06 to play in the game, a Utah squad that was more relentless than it was efficient (the team shot 44% from the field) extended its lead down the stretch.
Senior Branden Carlson was one of four Utes who finished with double figures.
Arizona has been widely viewed as one of America’s most talented teams despite losing three players who were selected within the top 33 picks of last summer’s NBA draft. The Wildcats play the fastest tempo in the country but have somehow managed to also play some of the most efficient basketball in the nation.
That was until Thursday, when a Wildcats squad that had defeated No. 24 San Diego State and No. 7 Creighton in back-to-back games prior to facing Utah couldn’t find any answers.
Coach Tommy Lloyd said his team might have been affected by overconfidence.
“Today, we didn’t have a great approach, whether it’s the guys being a little bit intoxicated off their success or the things people are saying to them, I don’t know,” he told reporters after the game. “But we’re definitely going to have to address it, and we’re definitely going to have to play better than we did tonight.”