LAS VEGAS — After suffocating an opponent for a second straight Pac-12 tournament game, the Arizona Wildcats left no questions about their defense.
Except maybe this: Does it fuel the offense, or does the offense fuel it?
Sometimes, as during No. 4 Arizona’s 63-43 Pac-12 tournament semifinal win over Colorado on Friday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, it isn’t easy to tell.
“I think it may be both,” said guard Nick Johnson, who led the Wildcats in scoring with 16 typically acrobatic points. “When we get a few dunks, we get hyped up and it’s fun to play. It’s definitely fun.”
There’s no question the Wildcats have built what is already a 30-win season on a solid foundation of defense and rebounding, and they essentially won Friday’s game easily by dominating those areas again.
For the second straight game, they kept an opponent under 30-percent shooting, with Colorado making just 29.4 percent of its field goals, and outrebounded the tiring Buffs 41-25. That put them in today’s Pac-12 tournament championship game against UCLA.
But there was also this evidence: After Johnson threw down a tricky reverse dunk by racing through traffic down the baseline in the second half, the Wildcats outscored the Buffs 15-3 over the next eight minutes.
All it took was for Johnson to sweet-talk his point guard, T.J. McConnell, into this alley-oop assist:
“All year I’ve been begging him to throw me lobs,” Johnson said. “I said, ‘I don’t have a 47-inch vert (vertical leap) for nothing. Trust me.’ He trusted me, threw it up, and even though the guy was there, I finished it.
“After that, he was like, ‘OK, I trust you. I trust myself also.’”
McConnell said the latter issue was actually the bigger one. He wasn’t sure he could safely find Johnson through the crowd on the baseline.
“I always have trust in him on those plays, but sometimes I don’t have trust in myself to make a perfect pass,” McConnell said. “He drew up the play, and he said, ‘I’m going backdoor.’ I saw a little bit of space. I threw it, and he finished with authority.”
After that, nothing but smiles, cheers, wild gestures … and more intense defense. While the Wildcats outscored Colorado 15-3 over the next eight minutes, the Buffs were just 1 for 11 from the field, with a turnover.
So in this case, at least, McConnell said offense did actually fuel the defense.
“No question,” McConnell said. “When our fans are like that, revved up and loud, and when we’re moving on offense and hitting shots, it energizes our defense.”
Even UA coach Sean Miller, the architect of the Wildcats’ gap-oriented, pack-line defense that has been stronger than ever this season, indicated that the offense made a difference in the second half.
“Our defense became great in the second half, but our offense found its flow,” Miller said. “We shared the ball. We were more ourselves. It was that combination that really broke the game open.”
While Johnson led the Wildcats in scoring with 16 points, heroes were all over the court. McConnell had five assists and no turnovers — after he had 10 assists and no turnovers against CU three weeks earlier — while Aaron Gordon put on another show with nine points, nine rebounds, three blocks and three steals.
One of Gordon’s blocks came early in the second half, when UA took a 27-24 halftime lead and blew the game open by holding Colorado to 2-of-15 shooting over the first 10 minutes of the second half.
Gordon blocked Xavier Johnson, who had hurt the Wildcats in the first half with nine points. Johnson was humbled a few weeks earlier following his January comments that the Buffaloes would “blow out” the Wildcats in Boulder.
Xavier Johnson went just 1 for 10 from the field in the game at Boulder, which UA won 88-61, but was 3 for 5 and hit both three-point attempts he took in the first half Friday.
After halftime, he was just 1 of 6, and was emblematic of the Buffaloes’ second-half shooting struggles.
The fact that CU guard Askia Booker only went 4 for 14 from the field, working hard for his 12 points, also made the difference for Arizona.
“When we were watching film this morning, the biggest thing we got was that, in order for them to win, they needed Askia and Xavier Johnson to have big games,” UA guard Gabe York said. “Xavier was really quiet in the second half. He got blocked and fouled, and I think that’s what took him out of the game.”
York said it helped that the Wildcats were thoroughly familiar with Colorado and Utah, which they had kept to just 25.5 percent shooting in a quarterfinal blowout Thursday. It also may have helped that Colorado was playing its third game in three days.
“I don’t know if it did or not,” Colorado coach Tad Boyle said of the possible fatigue factor. “Our guys are young. Our guys are resilient.”
Indeed, it was two years ago that Colorado beat UA while playing its fourth game in four days to claim the Pac-12 tournament championship.
Nick Johnson was a freshman in that game, and there’s little doubt he’s looking for a different result today, in what could be the Wildcats’ first Pac-10 or Pac-12 tournament title since 2002.
“It’s one of our three goals,” Johnson said of winning the Pac-12 regular season and tournament titles, plus the NCAA tournament. “Nothing feels better than to obtain your goals.”