Comeback Cats punch ticket to Elite Eight
ANAHEIM, Calif. — Nick Johnson scored 15 out of the Wildcats’ last 16 points to beat San Diego State 70-64 in the Sweet Sixteen at the Honda Center on Thursday night.
But Johnson, the Pac-12 Conference’s Player of the Year, was just 2:44 away from going home and being held scoreless in Arizona’s most tightly contested game of the season.
“That was the most physical, hard-fought game of the season for us,” Arizona head coach Sean Miller said. “San Diego State really set the tone on how the game was going to be played.”
Though Johnson’s final 14 points — nine of which came at the free throw line — were the key to the game in the box score, it was the physical play by the Wildcats’ junior point guard T.J. McConnell that eventually ignited Johnson to go on that final offensive run.
McConnell, who had to dive to the ground to secure the steal, then passed it to an open sophomore guard Gabe York, who found Johnson streaking to the hoop for his first points of the game.
“That was the play of the game,” York said.
Johnson finished with 15 points on 2-for-12 shooting from the field, but he made all 10 free throws he took.
“Coach, the whole coaching staff, all the team, they’re great with keeping me up,” Johnson said. “When I hit one shot, it just started to feel a little better.”
Johnson’s struggles only aggravated what was already a frustrating night for the Wildcats as whole.
From the opening possession, the Aztecs’ defense pressured Arizona with a full-court press. The overwhelming pressure screwed with Arizona’s tempo and allowed SDSU to be the aggressor for most of the game.
“The aggressor wins in basketball all the time, no matter what” Arizona freshman forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson said. “Our coaches tell us to keep poised and keep playing hard and eventually they’ll break.”
The Wildcats maintained ball control throughout most of the game and only had eight turnovers in the entire game. But as a team Arizona couldn’t find the bottom of the net. It made just 10 of its 27 shot attempts in the first half.
The pressure by SDSU wasn’t just on defense, but also offense. Aztec big man Josh Davis thrashed Arizona with six rebounds in the first 10 minutes of Thursday’s game.
“It kind of stunned us a little bit how hard they were rebounding at the beginning,” Johnson said.
But the Aztecs finished the game with 18 second-chance points, after getting an offensive rebound.
Davis finished the game with 14 rebounds, six of which were offensive.
“When you give someone so many second chance points it’s hard to contain a team,” Arizona sophomore center Kaleb Tarczewski said. “[Davis] is quick, crafty and he’s strong—he’s a great basketball player.”
But Arizona stuck to their game plan and stuck to their leader. They kept attacking SDSU on offense and defense and kept giving Johnson the opportunity to score until eventually SDSU broke.
“We definitely notice when a team is tired,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “When they’re huffing and puffing, they have their hands on their hips or head — that’s when it’s time to go in for the kill.”
Arizona hung on throughout the game and climbed its way back by matching SDSU’s intensity.
After McConnell’s steal with 2:44 left in the game, the Aztecs could no longer hang on and could no longer contain Johnson.
“The beginning of the game, giving up that many second shots, you don’t get to this level without having that toughness and resolve that we have,” Miller said. “Finding a way, being tough-minded and almost willing our way to the finish line.”
—Follow Luke Della @LukeDella