LAS CRUCES, N. M. - This is not the Land of Enchantment, as the license plates say, not at the Pan American Center, and not against a New Mexico State team that you can picture winning 25 games, the WAC and maybe a game or two in the NCAA tournament.

It's more like the Land of Entanglements.

When Arizona coach Sean Miller agreed to play here, he knew he was playing with fire, but he couldn't have imagined he would start freshman Nick Johnson for the first time; start a small forward, Jesse Perry, at center; fall behind 10-2; and watch as Aggies fifth-year senior Wendell McKines scored 28 points (although he played so well it seemed like 38.)

"I know a lot of people who rolled their eyes. Some of my friends asked me, 'Why are you playing at New Mexico State?'" Miller said a few minutes after the Wildcats played their most defining game of the year, winning 83-76, and overcoming all of the obstacles that usually overwhelm a young, undersized team.

"But at the end of the day, it was a great test. And if you win, it's a terrific win. Now I hope New Mexico State wins every game it plays."

Games come and go so quickly in college basketball that you often don't take time, or have time, to stop and chew on a particular game. But this was one of those that Miller and UA fans might bookmark and remember with fondness.

That's because Johnson had a breakout performance the way so many UA freshmen had breakout performances over the last 25 years.

"One thing people should've learned (tonight) is how good Nick Johnson can be at Arizona," said Miller. Indeed.

Johnson produced career highs in minutes (34), points (19), dunks (I lost count), and now there is no looking back. He can no longer be considered a freshman because he has played 180 minutes and, on this UA team, that qualifies as veteran status.

"We put the best five on the court," said Perry, saying that size and experience are no longer issues. "That's how it has to be right now."

That means Johnson's days as a super-sub are at an end.

"He was terrific," said Miller, who doesn't resort to hyperbole. "What Nick is doing doesn't surprise me because I'm around him every day. He's wise beyond his years. His maturity is beyond his years and that allows him to shine."

After its uneven performance and loss to San Diego State last week, this trip to New Mexico appeared to be the last place the Wildcats would survive under pressure. Sure, it helped that the Aggies spent five days in Alaska last week and didn't return home until Sunday afternoon.

But this was marketed as the game of the year, or something like that, at the Pan Am Center. The school asked its fans to wear white, stand tall and occupy every corner of the arena. This was likely the most high-profile school to play in Las Cruces since Jerry Tarkanian's UNLV powerhouses of the early '90s.

Alas, the whiteout was a dud - only a few hundred students obliged - and the Pan Am Center had about 2,000 empty seats. It didn't match the din that the Wildcats annually face on the Oregon Trail; at Cal and Stanford; and especially at Washington and ASU.

Nevertheless, it was a good way for a young team to test its manhood.

"I love that (pressure) personally," said Solomon Hill, who was a calming influence, scattering himself across the box score with 12 points, seven assists and six rebounds. "I feel that you can't pressure me in a game. That's our bread and butter."

The only time the Wildcats cracked, or failed to respond favorably, was in the final 3:50. It was almost predictable. As it played a delay game, killing the clock, Arizona failed to score on seven consecutive possessions. You almost had to cover your eyes: someone dropped a pass on a break-away dunk; someone else shot an airball from four feet out; there were bad passes in traffic; and a miss on the front end of a one-and-one free-throw opportunity.

A 79-69 game suddenly became a one-possession thriller.

Hey, it's November. It's a road game. Stuff happens.

"We've got things we can refine," said Hill. "We hadn't been in that situation this year."

It is going to get considerably more difficult once the UA awakens today from its middle-of-the-night bus trip back to Tucson. After Saturday's home game against NAU, the Wildcats play, in succession, Florida, Clemson and Gonzaga.

That makes an over-nighter to Las Cruces seem like the Red and Blue Game.

"For us, we move from one day to the next, and from one game to the next," said Miller. "We're not a Top 10 team in search of marquee wins.

"It's only the end of November and there's a lot of basketball left. We're hopeful this is a sign of good things to come."

And then the coach smiled and walked to a bus. The long drive through the night would be a good one.