NEW YORK — A year ago, or two, Nick Johnson probably could have gotten away with the kind of first-half performance he had Friday.
Before halftime in UA’s 72-66 win over Duke, Johnson had two points, two turnovers, two fouls and missed both three-pointers he took.
That wasn’t going to cut it. This time, there was no Mark Lyons, no Solomon Hill around to make up the difference.
There was talent around Johnson, sure, but mostly young talent. UA needed a leader, a go-to guy to get something going in the second half.
So junior point guard T.J. McConnell offered a few pointed words.
“In the second half, I told him, ‘You need to take over. This is our game,’ ” McConnell said. “He did a great job of taking over, scoring when we needed it.”
The exact same thought was in UA coach Sean Miller’s mind. And, before long, in Johnson’s ear.
“Coach kind of looked over at me and said, ‘C’mon. It’s time. I need you right now,’ ” Johnson said.
Johnson said that conversation occurred just before Johnson stepped behind the three-point line to hit a shot that gave UA a 57-48 lead with 6:21 left.
When it went in, the always demonstrative Johnson celebrated even more than normal. So did his teammates and the large four-figure gathering of UA fans inside the Garden.
“It was a big sigh of relief,” Johnson said. “It finally fell, and everything kind of went from there.”
Johnson finished with 15 points, three assists, two steals, two blocks and two rebounds with four turnovers. His effort earned Johnson the NIT’s MVP award, since he totaled 35 points and seven rebounds over the Wildcats’ two wins in New York.
“Nick’s obviously a great player, and he deserves this one,” said McConnell, who added eight assists with only two turnovers.
It was the latest episode in Johnson’s maturation to a more prominent role this season. After all, just about every time Miller talks about the improvement his freshmen need to make, he has mentioned that Johnson, too, is having to grow into a new role that he’s not accustomed to.
Sometimes, Johnson has to be the guy for Arizona to turn to.
“Nick’s become that for us,” Miller said. “He’s taken big shots. And he’s made them. True go-to guys are the ones who dig their team out of a gutter or are able to put three or four bad plays behind them and make the next big play.
“It’s great to see Nick’s developing into that. I don’t know if there are more complete guards in the country than Nick, when you look at what he means to the team, and the way he plays both ends of the floor. He’s really turned into a terrific guard.”