Nick Johnson's Clutch Play, Big Games by Freshmen Lift Arizona to Elite Eight

Brian PedersenFeatured ColumnistMarch 28, 2014

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You can look at Arizona's 70-64 win over San Diego State in the Sweet 16 from two different angles.

There's the one that shows how team leader Nick Johnson put the Wildcats on his shoulders, scoring 15 of Arizona's final 16 points to ensure a berth in the Elite Eight. He's the Pac-12 Player of the Year, it's what he's supposed to do, right?

Or you can gaze through the lens that filters out any hyperbole and built-in expectations, the one that shows Arizona won in spite of Johnson. And by doing so, the Wildcats showed they have the mettle to earn their first Final Four trip in 13 years.

The truth is, while top-seeded Arizona (33-4) got some clutch play from Johnson in the final three minutes, it wouldn't have been in a position for him to be clutch if not for the effort of freshmen Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. The youngsters each had 15 points, went a combined 11-of-17 from the field and kept the game close until Arizona's MVP woke up.

Gordon had his usual share of highlight-reel plays—an alley-oop dunk that seems to be a nightly occurrence and a tip-in off an airball that gave the Wildcats the lead for good at 52-50—to finish 7-of-9 from the field while chipping in six rebounds, two assists and two blocks.

But it was Hollis-Jefferson—the far less-heralded member of Arizona's 2013 recruiting class—who seemed to be the only player putting in full effort during a first half when San Diego State appeared in complete control and had its portion of a packed Honda Center in Anaheim drowning out the Wildcat supporters.

Hollis-Jefferson, who was coming off a career-high 18 points in Sunday's third-round win over Gonzaga, got his first five points from the line by going at the Aztecs' rebound-eating bigs instead of trying to float runners over their long reach. SDSU held a plus-10 advantage almost the whole game, but Hollis-Jefferson combated that by creating situations where a board wasn't possible.

The Arizona Republic's Doug Haller noted that Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson scored 24 of Arizona's first 38 points, preventing SDSU from pulling away before the Wildcats started getting contributions from all five players on the court.

The scoring was the most obvious way the freshmen contributed, but their defense was also key to the comeback. SDSU shot 41 percent in the first half, but made just 9-of-25 shots in the second half. That included a span of 7:03 during which the Aztecs failed to make a basket, a stretch where Arizona went from down three to up five.

Xavier Thames may have scored 25 points for SDSU, but he needed 22 shots to get that output.

"You don't get to this level without having that toughness and resolve and we have," Arizona coach Sean Miller told reporters in the post-game press conference. "I think that was the story of the game: us, finding a way, being tough-minded, and almost willing our way to the finish line."

Arizona took its first lead since midway through the first half on T.J. McConnell's layup with 7:21 remaining for a 50-49 edge. The supporting cast did what their name suggests, and then Johnson took over.

Or, rather, woke up and then took over.

ANAHEIM, CA - MARCH 27:  Gabe York #1 talks with Nick Johnson #13 of the Arizona Wildcats in the second half while taking on the San Diego State Aztecs during the regional semifinal of the 2014 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at the Honda Center on March
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Johnson tied for the team lead in scoring...with 15. Yes, those same 15 points that he pumped in during the last 2:46 of the contest. After going 0-of-10 to start, the junior scored on a layup to get off the schneid, a basket that came moments after McConnell did his best Aaron Craft impression by diving across the floor for a steal and then passed to Gabe York before Johnson finished for a 56-51 lead.

Johnson then swished a three-pointer, and it was like that horrible start never happened. He drew five fouls in the final 90 seconds, and not one of those 10 free throws even came close to clanging out.

That was a direct 360 from the first 90 percent of the game, when Johnson couldn't buy a shot. He did make one basket, a half-court shot as the first half ended, but as it goes when you're having an off night, it came a hair after the buzzer sounded.

Johnson has had other horrible-shooting games this season. In Arizona's four losses he was a combined 19-of-66, including a 1-of-14 performance in the Wildcats' first defeat back in February, and in other games he's started off slow only to heat up later.

That didn't look like it was going to happen on Thursday, but Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson were making it so it didn't have to. But once it did, it was clear that Johnson wasn't going to let the Wildcats' season end on this night.

Arizona trailed 32-28 at the half against SDSU, and has been behind at halftime in several of its biggest wins this season. But that kind of resilience can't become an assumption, not when the Wildcats face Wisconsin on Saturday for a shot at their first Final Four since 2001.

Second-seeded Wisconsin (29-7) looked almost flawless in blowing out Baylor, playing like a team that won't allow an opponent to get back into the game. Certainly not one that has its best player go scoreless for the first 37 minutes of play.