Johnson's big plays wake up McKale

2012-02-12T00:00:00Z 2014-07-02T12:14:36Z Johnson's big plays wake up McKalePatrick Finley Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
February 12, 2012 12:00 am  • 

After the Arizona Wildcats dodged a perhaps fatal upset bid at home, Kyle Fogg was asked to ponder how many freshmen, anywhere, could have rescued their team the way Nick Johnson did Saturday against Utah.

"I don't know many," Fogg said. "There's one right here, though."

It's not just that the Gilbert resident got hot in Saturday's 70-61 nail-biting win against the lowly Utes.

It's when he got hot - just in time.

"Nick Johnson, to me, played his best game that he's played at Arizona," coach Sean Miller said. "The timeliness of his plays - he was a big-time player in today's game."

With 8:29 to play and his team down two, Johnson made a layup to tie the game for only the second time of the day.

Almost exactly two minutes later, the UA down three, he made a three-pointer to knot the game again.

Forty seconds later, with UA again down three, Johnson made another layup to keep the game within one.

Then came the big one.

With 4:16 to play, the Wildcats tied the game at 61 on a Brendon Lavender three-pointer.

From there the two teams remained for 2:52, turning McKale Center into a copper-topped pressure cooker.

With 1:24 to play, Johnson caught a Jesse Perry pass and flushed a three-pointer, giving the Wildcats a lead they would not relinquish.

The cardinal-and-navy faithful dabbed sweat from their brows.

The UA's at-large NCAA tournament hopes would have dwindled greatly, if not completely, with a home loss to a team that started the week No. 265 in the RPI.

"If we lost that game," Johnson said, "that would not be good for our season."

Johnson even added two last-second, cosmetic, free throws to finish with 18 points. Eleven came in the final 8:29.

"Made a couple shots," said Johnson, the nephew of the late NBA great Dennis Johnson, a Hall of Famer. "Lav was hot then. When I see them make shots, it just propels me and I want to make shots. They were feeling good today."

Miller stressed the strides Johnson has made in conference play, despite still fighting the inconsistency of youth. He said the 6-foot-2 guard has "as good of an attitude as I've seen in a freshman."

Johnson has scored in double figures in five of his past 12 games, though has posted three games during that span in which he scored only two.

"Nick's had his ups and downs this season," said Fogg, a senior. "The main thing for him is to keep his confidence.

"He's a guy that can go out there and give you 18 points a game. Honestly.

"I think when he's playing great, other guys feed off him, myself included. And I think we're at our best as a team when he's doing great."

The three games before Saturday, however, he had averaged 10 points, five rebounds, and 2.3 assists.

"Nick's playing better," Miller said. "He's really gaining. Like any freshman, they have their valleys, and he's had his. But he's a really, really important part of our team.

"Just imagine if he didn't play well today.

"We needed him today in a big way, and he stepped up and delivered. When young players do that, they gain more and more confidence."

Johnson helped the Wildcats eventually pick apart the Utes' 2-3 zone.

The UA shot 33 percent in the first half, but made 52 percent in the second frame.

"I thought, in the first half, they couldn't get the look," Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said. "And in the second half, everyone was open."

Lavender said Fogg and Johnson's shooting "kinda sparked the bench," and the Wildcats then "started finding the open man."

Miller theorized that the Wildcats got "tight" the first 30 minutes, fearing the upset, and stopped sharing the ball.

"Guys were just standing still, stagnant, and we weren't moving it enough," Fogg said. 'Once we started doing that, guys were able to get open shots.

"Lav was knocking them down, and Nick really took it upon himself to take over the game.

"He's the reason we got the win."

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