ANAHEIM, Calif. – Nick Johnson found his stroke just in time, and for that the Arizona Wildcats are headed to the Elite Eight for the second time in four seasons.
Having missed his first 10 field goals, Johnson scored 15 points in the final 2:46 to help lift the Wildcats to a 70-64 win over San Diego State in the NCAA West Region semifinal tonight at the Honda Center.
The win moved UA to 33-4 overall and into a West Region final game with Wisconsin (29-7) on Saturday at the Honda Center. SDSU ended its season at 31-5.
The Wildcats will be playing their second Elite Eight game under UA coach Sean Miller at exactly the same arena, having lost to UConn by two points at the Honda Center in 2010-11.
Johnson, the Wildcats’ unquestioned leader and Pac-12 Player of the Year, he finally got on the board tonight when it mattered most.
He took an assist from Gabe York off an SDSU turnover and made a layup to give UA its biggest lead of the game to that point, 56-51, with 2:45 left.
He later sank a three-pointer that gave UA a 59-53, giving giddy relief to the UA side of a Honda Center crowd that was nearly split between UA and SDSU fans.
Then Johnson hit both ends of a one-and-one free-throw opportunity with 1:31 left, giving UA a 61-53 lead, and went 8 for 8 from the line over the final 1:05
That made Johnson 10 for 10 from the line in the final 91 seconds, blowing away even his 6-for-6 performance from the line in the final 24 seconds of UA's 72-70 comeback win at Michigan on Dec. 14.
However, the Aztecs still gave the Wildcats a final scare, cutting it to 67-64 with 10.8 seconds to go and sending Gabe York to the line with a foul. York made 1 of 2 free throws but San Diego State missed two shots on its final possession, and Miller began slapping and hugging with his players at that point, before Johnson nailed his final free throws.
Johnson had been snakebitten through the first 30 minutes of the game, had it initially so bad that his 10th field goal attempt, a short jumper in the lane, rimmed out.
But the Wildcats still managed to take a 50-49 lead later, with 7:15 to go, when T.J. McConnell drove inside for a layup. UA never gave up the lead after that point.
Arizona had kept the game within a basket early in the second half, despite Johnson being 0 for 9 at that point and SDSU outrebounding UA by 11. But the Aztecs had nine turnovers then, which led to 15 UA points.
Earlier in the half, the Wildcats pulled out the kind of play that propelled them to 21-0 start and Pac-12 regular-season title: Gabe York took a turnover from SDSU’s Josh Davis, and dished to Gordon for one-handed jam.
But UA was dealing with foul trouble throughout the second half. Center Kaleb Tarczewski carried three fouls into the second half and picked up his fourth just a minute and eight seconds after halftime, sitting for seven minutes
He hit a pair of free throws shortly after returning and didn’t foul out, but Rondae Hollis-Jefferson fouled out with 4:42 left.
In the first half, SDSU's Josh Davis and the Aztecs willed themselves a 32-28 lead at halftime by beating the Wildcats up on the glass during a predictably defensive slugfest.
Davis, the transfer from Tulane that Arizona briefly tried to recruit last spring, had 11 rebounds while the Aztecs outrebounded the Wildcats 24-14 overall in the half. Arizona had outrebounded SDSU 39-28 in its 29-20 win on Nov. 14 at San Diego State.
While Arizona managed to shoot just 37 percent from the field, the Aztecs hit just 41.4 percent, with the rebounding making the difference. San Diego State had eight second-chance points off its 10 offensive rebounds while the Wildcats had none.
Davis was limited to only three more rebounds in the second half, to total 14 and Arizona still wound up being out rebounded 37-29 for the game.
In the first half, San Diego State also held Johnson to 0-for-7 shooting, though Johnson sank a halfcourt shot right after the halftime buzzer. Replays showed the ball was still in his hands when time expired.
The game started out in predictable fashion, considering the defensive nature of both teams. UA and SDSU shot a combined 17.8 percent over the first four minutes and were mired in a 4-4 tie after four minutes.
But after Aaron Gordon hit a three-pointer to give UA a 22-20 lead with 7:50 left in the half, the Wildcats were scoreless for the next 3:40 while the Aztecs built a seven-point lead, 29-22.
Dwayne Polee II had the mostly black-clad SDSU fans roaring when he stepped in front of a pass from Tarczewski to Aaron Gordon, intercepted it and raced downcourt for an emphatic dunk that put the Aztecs up 27-22.
Then Winston Shepard hit a step-back 15-footer to make it 29-22 entering the final four minutes of the half. Arizona cut it to four when Gordon dunked and McConnell drove the baseline for a reverse dunk.