Freshman Aaron Gordon, right, had 10 points and seven rebounds as the Wildcats improved to 7-0.
NEW YORK – In one sense, there really wasn’t a whole lot different about the Arizona Wildcats on Friday than in any of their other six victories this season.
They had balance. Intimidating interior play. Timely defense. And emerging leadership from junior guard Nick Johnson.
The difference, of course, was that they were beating Duke, 72-66. In an ESPN showdown between two top-10 powers. On one of college basketball’s biggest early season stages: Madison Square Garden.
If they can make it here, who knows what can happen in March?
“I think we can be special, no question,” UA coach Sean Miller said. “We have to be an elite defensive team. We have to be able to use our size rebounding, and we just have to continue to develop and improve. But the one thing I know, being around our team every day and over the summer, is that we have a really good group of kids.”
While beating the sixth-ranked Blue Devils for their fifth time in nine all-time meetings – and second under Miller, along with a win over No. 1-seeded Duke in the 2011 Sweet 16 – the fourth-ranked Wildcats showed all those elements Miller is looking for.
They held Duke to 28.6 percent shooting from three-point range, kept star freshman Jabari Parker from scoring 20 or more points for the first time in his young college career and took advantage of their size inside.
And, as Friday’s game went on, they also found heroics from Johnson, who struggled in the first half but rebounded to score 13 of his team-high 15 points after halftime.
Three of Johnson’s points came on a dagger from the right wing, a step-back shot with 6:21 left that capped a 12-3 second-half run and gave the Wildcats control of the game with a 57-48 lead.
Johnson earlier hit a three-pointer that followed a three from Aaron Gordon, which tied the game at 45 with 11 minutes to go.
“I thought the biggest shot of the game was (Gordon’s) three, when we were up by four, and then Johnson hit one right at the end of the clock after that,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
“That wiped out our lead, the small lead that we had, and seemed to give them a little more life.”
True enough. After their 12-3 run, the Wildcats extended their lead to 61-51 on dunks by Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Gordon before Duke cut the lead to five in the final minutes.
The win, which moved Arizona to 7-0, gave the Wildcats their fourth NIT Season Tip-Off title, and first since 1999. Duke also has four NIT Season Tip-Off titles.
“I’m really ecstatic that we were able to win this tournament here in the Garden,” Miller said. “Everybody here knows what a special place this is. … It’s going to be a nice plane ride home because I think we feel good about how hard we played and what we were able to accomplish.”
Johnson wound up earning the NIT’s MVP award, having scored 35 points with seven rebounds combined in two New York games, while Gordon made the all-tournament team along with Duke’s Rodney Hood and Parker, plus Drexel’s Frantz Massenat.
In Friday’s final, Hood had 21 points and Parker had 19. It was the first time in Duke’s eight games that Parker had been held below 20 points.
Arizona, meanwhile, had five players scoring in double figures, with Brandon Ashley providing first-half highlights before Johnson and Gordon accelerated in the second half.
Ashley scored 11 points in the first half on 5-for-7 shooting, keeping UA going in a game in which the lead changed hands eight times before halftime.
Ashley also stood out on the defensive end, guarding Parker often in the first half while the freshman went 5 for 13 to score 11 points before halftime.
Clearly, Ashley enjoyed the challenge.
After all, some billed Friday’s game around star freshmen Parker and Gordon, but Ashley is a former high school All-American who hasn’t generated nearly that kind of attention in his second college season.
“It was a battle but it was fun,” Ashley said. “It’s always nice to out there and beat the best talent in the country. I feel like even in high school I was ranked high (but) I didn’t really get talked about a lot, so the fact that I’m not getting talked about now is no big deal to me.
“The fact is we’ve got a lot of talent on our team. We have some very, very good players.”