Arizona is going to get every team's best shot. The Wildcats know it. It's the burden that comes with being the best team in the country. But no matter how many shots they've taken this season, Arizona keeps getting back up.
Nick Johnson hit a three-point jumper with 49 seconds remaining and the Wildcats defense held Stanford to just one field goal in the final 9:58 as Arizona escaped Palo Alto with a 60-57 victory on Wednesday (Jan. 29) night.
Like he has all season long, Johnson put the onus on himself to make a basket when his team needed it most. Tied at 55-55, Brandon Ashley missed a jumper from the right baseline that was rebounded by Kaleb Tarczewski and kicked back out to Johnson for an offensive reset.
Left with space and a split-second decision, Johnson instead launched a three in rhythm from the top of the key and watched it go through the bottom of the net. It was just Arizona's second lead since the opening minute of the second half, but the Wildcats' work was far from over.
Luckily, they had one of the nation's best defenses to fall back on. Unable to seal the game at the free-throw line, the Wildcats gave Stanford four different possessions to tie the game up. Each Cardinal attempt clanked off the rim, indicative of a 10-minute stretch that saw Johnny Dawkins' squad collapse offensively.
Ahead 53-49 following a Josh Huestis jumper with 9:58 remaining, the basket shrunk as the long-armed, athletic Arizona defense went into lockdown. The Cardinal missed 11 of their next 12 shots, the only basket being a Dwight Powell layup with 1:22 left on the clock.
"We're an outstanding defensive team, Arizona coach Sean Miller said, per the Associated Press (via ESPN). "It isn't as if we changed any scheme; we just buckled down and had a lot of players playing very hard, and our ability to hold them to what we did is a big reason we won. Our defense won the game tonight."
Stanford scorer Chasson Randle went just 3 of 15 from the field, continuing a difficult shooting stretch for the junior guard. Randle is shooting 25.6 percent over the Cardinal's last three contests, two of which were losses against elite Pac-12 competition. His final shot was a sprawling three-pointer as time expired, one of two potentially clutch buckets that clanged off the rim in the final minute.
Huestis wasn't much more efficient in getting his 13 points, making 5 of 16 shots. Overall, Stanford had four different starters in double figures but managed two bench points and lost the battles behind the three-point arc and at the charity stripe.
Those late struggles allowed Arizona to come back despite hitting 36 percent of its shots and knocking down a disconcerting 18-of-29 attempts at the free-throw line. It's the third straight contest the Wildcats have scored fewer than 70 points and the second straight they needed heroics from Johnson to escape.
Johnson wasn't quite as efficient as his 22-point performance in Arizona's win over Utah over the weekend, but he was seemingly the only person who could get any offensive rhythm going in the second half. Twelve of his 16 points came in the final 20 minutes, and he scored the Wildcats' final seven points.
ESPN's Dana O'Neil is one of many leading a groundswell of support for Johnson as the National Player of the Year:
T.J. McConnell stabilized the offense when Johnson couldn't. The junior guard scored 11 points, grabbed eight boards and dished four assists, and more importantly, he was the only Arizona starter to make at least half his shots. Aaron Gordon was almost entirely absent with five points and nine rebounds, while Ashley's 10 points came on 3-of-9 shooting.
These games are going to happen to Arizona, a team with enough scoring across the board but no pure offensive superstars. The Wildcats are grinders, an eclectic group mixed with players young and old who can each pick the team up in their own way when others are struggling.
"One of the things we need to do is play defense at a high level more consistently, and I think that will help us out a lot," Ashley said. "When we were down, we weren't thinking about being down. For any team to be competitive, at any level, you have to be confident in yourself."
On Wednesday, everyone struggled. But their cohesion and togetherness on defense combined with Johnson's clutch shooting allowed them to escape with the win.
Twenty-one down, 10 to go. While few would argue with the Wildcats being ranked No. 1, it's clear that keeping that ranking is only going to get harder as the streak keeps going.
Arizona will continue its California road trip on Saturday when it heads to Berkeley to take on Cal. Stanford will try to overcome its heartbreak when the Cardinal host Arizona State that same afternoon.
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