It took 37 minutes and 14 seconds, but eventually No. 1 Arizona’s all-american shooting guard Nick Johnson scored.
It was a layup in transition, one that capped a 10-2 momentum-changing run to put the Wildcats up 56-51. After SDSU scored at the other end, Johnson buried his first three of the game and followed that up with eight straight free throws to help the Wildcats hold off the No. 4 seed Aztecs, 70-64, and advance to the Elite 8. He finished with 15 points, all coming in the final 2:46.
He had 15 of Arizona’s last 16 points and hit ten critical free throws during that stretch. That’s what veterans do. That’s what all-americans do. And that’s why Johnson is Arizona’s closer.
The Wildcats will face No. 2 Wisconsin on Saturday night in the Honda Center in Anaheim for the West Region title and the right to go to the Final Four.
And after this performance, the idea of Arizona being a national championship caliber team only gets reinforced.
That may sound weird after the performance we just witnessed, but hear me out.
San Diego State is a really good basketball team. On Thursday night, they played about as well as they can possibly play. They didn’t turn the ball over and allow Arizona to get out in transition. They pounded the Wildcats on the offensive glass, and even if it didn’t result in a ton of second chance points, it forced Sean Miller to send all five players to the defensive glass. That prevents leak outs. That prevents fast breaks.
And that, in turn, forced Arizona to play a possession by possession game, where their subpar half court offense had to try and score against SDSU’s set defense, which is as stout as any defense in the country.
That’s not all. In addition to the fact that Johnson missed his first ten shots from the floor, Kaleb Tarczewski, their starting center, picked up three fouls in the first half and drew his fourth with more than 18 minutes left in the game. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who finished with 15 points off the bench, fouled out with just under five minutes left. Arizona is not a deep team at all, particularly in their front court.
Throw in the fact that Xavier Thames had it going in the second half, and this was a worst-case scenario for Sean Miller. This was the blueprint for what you needs to happen to beat Arizona.
And they survived.
If Arizona proved anything tonight, it’s that their defense is good enough to overcome their worst performance.
That’s a scary thought for Wisconsin.