ANAHEIM, Calif. — For nearly all of the 2013-14 season, Nick Johnson has been the best player on the Arizona Wildcats roster.
On Thursday, he was one of the worst.
At least for most of the game.
More than 37 minutes had elapsed in the Wildcats’ Sweet 16 showdown against San Diego State, and Johnson hadn’t scored a point. Three-pointers clanged off the back of the iron, mid-range jumpers rattled in and out—even an open layup attempt spun 360 degrees around the rim before falling to the side.
Johnson couldn’t have hit sand if he fell off a camel. Assistant coach Damon Stoudamire thought about trying to console the Wildcats' leading scorer during a timeout, but one glance at Johnson made him change his mind.
“You could see on his face that it was wearing on him,” Stoudamire said. “He probably had 100 things going through his head. You don’t want to clutter it up more than it already is.”
“We weren’t worried,” he said. “Nick has been resilient all year long.”
That trend continued Thursday, when Johnson went from goat to hero with a few flicks of the wrist in Arizona’s 70-64 victory.
Johnson missed his first 10 shots and hadn’t tallied a point until he scored on a breakaway layup—the result of a T.J. McConnell steal—with two minutes, 46 seconds remaining. That basket gave Arizona a 56-51 lead, but moments later San Diego State narrowed the bulge to 56-53 on a pair of foul shots by J.J. O’Brien.
Again, Johnson came through—this time on a three-pointer from the top of the key that made it 59-53 at the 1:52 mark. The basket was clearly the shot of the game for Arizona, which trailed by as many as eight points in the first half.
“I just stepped in and shot the ball like I’ve been shooting,” Johnson said. “The coaching staff, my teammates...they were great about keeping me up.”
Johnson capped off his clutch performance by making all 10 of his foul shots in the game’s final 91 seconds, refusing to allow the Aztecs to get back into the game. Arizona ranked last in the Pac-12 in free-throw shooting at 65.5 percent. But Johnson entered Thursday’s game making 76.9 percent of his charities.
“It’s not easy to put a bad first half behind you and come up big at the end,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “But between his free-throw shooting and that three-point shot...it’s amazing for a kid to be able to do that after not making shots for about 25, 30 straight minutes.”
San Diego State coach Steve Fisher wasn’t surprised by Johnson’s resolve. He said he warned his team at intermission that the junior, who averages 16.3 points, was due for a big second half.
“We were trying to foul anybody but him,” Fisher said. “They did a nice job of finding a way to get him the ball. He’s a player. Good players stay with it (when they’re struggling). ‘Next play...’ He did that to us tonight.”
Johnson’s resiliency mirrored that of his entire team.
Arizona won its first 21 games of the season, but its Final Four chances appeared to take a hit when standout forward Brandon Ashley suffered a season-ending knee injury Feb. 1. Arizona, though, regrouped and has won 12 of its last 15 games.
None of the victories were as gratifying as Thursday’s triumph over the Aztecs.
Arizona won despite being outrebounded 37-29. The Wildcats appeared a bit shell-shocked in the first half by the physicality of San Diego State, which had seven offensive rebounds in the game’s first four minutes.
“That was the most physical, hard-fought game of the season for us,” Miller said. “It took tremendous toughness and resolve.
“To me, that was the story of the game. Us finding a way, being tough-minded and almost willing our way to the finish line.”
The question now is whether Arizona can do it again.
As good as San Diego State was Thursday, the Wildcats will face an ever better team Saturday in Wisconsin, which annihilated red-hot Baylor 69-52 in Thursday’s other West Regional semifinal.
Arizona players said they’ve been motivated ever since losing to Ohio State in last year’s Sweet 16.
“We felt like we left some money on the table,” guard Gabe York said.
As good as that Arizona team was, this group is significantly better. The Wildcats are arguably the best defensive team in the country, and largely because of the leadership of Johnson, they share the type of chemistry and bond that’s imperative to March success.
“I love these guys to death,” freshman forward Aaron Gordon said. “Everybody has heart. They have no quit in them. It’s really easy to go through 40 minutes and give it your all when you know the person next to you is playing with their heart and leaving it all on the line.”
Jason King covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.