All season long, the Arizona Wildcats have fueled acrobatic offensive displays with stifling defense.
UA’s 87-59 win over California on Wednesday was no exception. Except this time guard Nick Johnson and the Wildcats dunked their way into a completely full circle.
While the Bears handed the Wildcats their darkest moment so far of the season on Feb. 1, in a 60-58 loss at Cal that was marked by a season-ending injury to Brandon Ashley, Arizona used several powerhouse runs to keep the Bears from ever seriously challenging this time, recording their second straight surprising blowout win.
And while Johnson was 1 for 14 from the field at Cal earlier this month, struggling to quickly replace the offense that UA lost without Ashley, this time he was 7 for 14 from the field for 22 points.
Johnson also had seven rebounds, five assists, a block, a steal – and zero turnovers, having put together three straight big games after beginning a minor slump at Cal.
If that’s not payback – and Johnson wasn’t using that word – it was satisfying.
“No question,” UA coach Sean Miller said. “Nick has a lot of pride. He knew he didn’t shoot the ball well at Cal. He played well at Cal in some other areas but Nick’s playing as well now as he’s played all season long.
“Even during his four or five games there where he wasn’t shooting well, I continued to say he was doing a lot of other things well. Now all of a sudden he’s shooting well again and he kind of picks up where he left off.”
In his past three games, Johnson has averaged 19 points and shot 54 percent from the field.
That’s a long way from Berkeley.
“I’m trying to get back in my groove myself,” Johnson said. “I felt Utah was a little step and Colorado take a little step and now this game.”
Johnson said the Wildcats, now 26-2 overall and 13-2 in the Pac-12, have their groove back, and they now suddenly can clinch at least a tie for the Pac-12 title on Sunday if they beat Stanford.
The Wildcats’ groove was so smooth that every time the Bears made a move Wednesday, Arizona answered with a big run.
In the first half, UA’s furious defense fueled 10 straight points late in the first half while the Wildcats completed a 26-7 run to take a 39-23 lead.
The second half was even more dramatic.
UA took a 44-29 halftime lead but Cal went on an 11-0 run to get back in the game early in the second half. The Bears cut it to 55-47 when Tyrone Wallace hit a three-pointer with 12:23 left.
But then the Wildcats went on a 18-5 run to take a 73-52 lead with 7:14 left, and cruised for the rest of the game.
Things were going so well for the Wildcats during their second-half run that even when there were problems, they weren’t really problems: Johnson had a dunk bounce high off the rim – but the ball landed in the hands of Gabe York, who fed it to T.J. McConnell for a jumper.
“That was planned,” Johnson said, smiling.
After that, Aaron Gordon dunked and it was 70-52 when Cal’s emotions began to overflow. The Bears were assessed two technical fouls, one on the coaching staff and another on guard Justin Cobbs after he jawed with officials following the play.
“It was frustration,” Cal coach Mike Montgomery said. “It happens when you’re not making plays.”
Cobbs finished with a team-high 12 points, but needed 5-of-12 shooting and had four turnovers to his two assists.
By contrast, Johnson had five assists to no turnovers and McConnell put up a third straight nearly flawless performance with six assists and one turnover, along with three steals and 13 points on 6-for-10 shooting.
“We’re moving well on offense,” McConnell said. “I’ll keep taking open shots and right now I’m making them.”
Johnson and McConnell are at the core of the Wildcats’ revival in the past three games. Both of them struggled in UA’s double-overtime loss at ASU on Feb. 14, and both have been at their best since then.
“I would say Nick stood out the most because what he did rebounding, defensively, five assists and no turnovers – he was a dominant performer tonight,” Miller said. “T.J. is shooting more. He’s shooting good shots. He’s used to shooting more. He’s learned that we need him to score and he’s doing that as well.”
Then again, the UA guards weren’t the only ones who had it going Wednesday. Center Kaleb Tarczewski also came through with 16 points on 7-for-9 shooting, while Aaron Gordon had 13 points and brought notable cheers from McKale fans with his 5-for-6 free throw shooting.
As always, at the core of UA’s win was defense and rebounding. Cal hit 43.6 percent from the field but only made 4 of 16 three-pointers, facing stiff defense on many of its made shots. Arizona also had 15 offensive rebounds and outrebounded Cal 42-25 overall.
But by combining all that with Arizona’s offense, which shot 60.3 percent at Colorado and 50.8 percent Wednesday, you get what Miller said might have been the Wildcats’ best back-to-back games they have played all season.
“One of the things that’s happening is our offense is continuing to develop,” Miller said. “I don’t think we have a bunch of shooters getting hot as much as we’re playing well together.
“The fact that we won at Colorado, and on the heels of that we were able to beat a very good Cal team, makes us feel good about where we’re at.”