TEMPE – With some help from a New Yorker, Nick Johnson had a much more pleasant trip to Wells Fargo Arena on Saturday when the Arizona Wildcats beat ASU 71-54.
The Wildcats lost 87-80 at ASU late last season, knocking the Wildcats all but off the NCAA tournament bubble, and Johnson was just 1 of 5 from the field with five points in his first return to his hometown.
But Saturday, Johnson scored 19 points while senior Mark Lyons, UA’s transfer guard from upstate New York, tied his season high with 24 points.
While the game was close until the final eight minutes of the game -- and as predictably physical and foul-plagued as an intrastate rivalry would suggest-- the Wildcats pulled ahead comfortably after going on a 9-0 run midway through the second half.
The win moved Arizona to 16-1 overall and 4-1 in the Pac-12 entering a home game Thursday against UCLA. ASU dropped to 14-4 and 3-2.
The Wildcats built their first double-digit lead, 55-44 with 7:44 left after going on a 9-0 run while Carson picked up his fourth foul on a drive by Mark Lyons. UA kept a comfortable lead from there.
After Lyons hit two ensuing free throws, UA led 48-44 and the Wildcats took off from there with a three-pointer by Solomon Hill, layup by Kevin Parrom and a layup from Johnson.
The Wildcats wound up shooting 46.3 percent from the field, hitting 56 percent in the second half, while holding ASU to just 39.1 percent in both halves.
ASU guard Jahii Carson led the Sun Devils with 22 points but ASU's well-regarded Carrick Felix had just five points on 1-of-8 shooting and seven turnovers.
In the first half, Arizona took a 29-26 halftime lead after a hard-fought, foul-plagued half.
Nick Johnson and Mark Lyons led the Wildcats with nine points each in a close game in which neither team led by more than three points for the first 12 minutes and seven players picked up two or more fouls.
UA built a 29-22 run entering the final 1:50 but ASU had a pair of free throws from Jahii Carson and a dunk by Evan Gordon as time expired to cut UA’s lead to three points at halftime.
Carson led all scorers in the half with 12 points while Gordon had 11 for ASU.
Carson, however, committed his third foul in the final seconds, while UA had four players with two fouls each: Lyons, Johnson, Grant Jerrett and Kaleb Tarczewski.
The Wildcats held ASU to just 39.1 percent shooting, while the Sun Devils made only 1 of 7 three-point shots. UA shot 37.9 percent from the field and 37.5 from three-point range.
Earlier in the half, Arizona took a 14-12 lead on a three-pointer from Lyons with 13 minutes left in the first half. Then, a technical foul against ASU’s Carrick Felix resulted in 1 of 2 free throws from Nick Johnson, giving UA a 15-12 lead.
But the game remained tight for the rest of the half. ASU took a 20-17 lead on a layup by Gordon but UA came back with six straight points, including a three-pointer from Johnson to go up 23-20.