SEATTLE - The score wasn't in the 80s, 70s or even 60s, like so many compelling Washington-Arizona games of the past.
In the Wildcats' 57-53 win over the Huskies on Thursday at Alaska Airlines Arena, neither team shot well enough or took care of the ball well enough for that kind of scoring. Each team had 17 turnovers, each struggled to hit three-pointers and each shot less than 37 percent overall from the field.
So instead, what gave UA coach Sean Miller his first win at Washington was not flashy offense, or even good offense. It was those things he preaches every day: defense and grit, the tenacity to overcome an 11-point first-half deficit and a five-point shortage at halftime, doing so when the crowd of 8,535 finally boomed over the game's final minutes.
"Sometimes on the road when you can find the way and play great defense, that means the world," Miller said. "Because you're not going to be perfect every game, especially in conference play. To me, this is one of our hardest earned victories of the season."
The win moved eighth-ranked Arizona to 18-2 overall and 6-2 in Pac-12 play, keeping the Wildcats just a game behind first-place Oregon in the conference race. Washington dropped to 12-9 and 4-4, having lost four straight games for the first time since 2008.
The microcosm of UA's win was embodied in guard Nick Johnson, who didn't shoot particularly well (4 for 12) and had three turnovers to his three assists … but played quality defense that helped slow down Washington gunner C.J. Wilcox to 11 points on 4-of-16 shooting.
Johnson also hit 3 of 4 free throws in the final 41 seconds to put the Huskies away for good, as the hard-fought game appeared almost destined for a photo finish or overtime.
"I definitely knew I had to make them," Johnson said. "I just didn't want to get to that point where I'd miss, and they'd get an easy bucket or something like that. Just focused and knocked them down. A three- or four-point lead is not safe."
Turned out, the Huskies were never a problem offensively toward the end. In the final minute, Washington missed three shots and had a turnover from point guard Abdul Gaddy.
Arizona entered the final minute with a 54-53 lead, and Johnson later made 1 of 2 free throws to put UA up 55-53. After Gaddy threw away the ball on an errant alley-oop pass to C.J. Wilcox, Johnson was fouled and hit both ends of a one-and-one to make it 57-53 with 26 seconds left.
Washington went scoreless on its final possession, and its last chance at making it a one-possession game ended when center Aziz N'Diaye threw up a missed three-pointer with seven seconds left.
UA had three players with 10 points each - Solomon Hill, Mark Lyons and Kaleb Tarczewski - and Tarczewski added eight boards in his second straight standout game.
Miller said Tarczewski has quietly "put together the two best games of his career," and he particularly kept UA alive in the first half with nine points and four rebounds.
"Everyone on our team is doing a good job of getting me the ball in positions where I can score or get fouled," Tarczewski said. "I knew it was going to be a tough game so I just wanted to have that tough mentality."
But defensively, again, Johnson was the leader. Wilcox entered Thursday's game averaging 20 points in Pac-12 play, while hitting 46 percent of his three-pointers and 47 percent of all his shots. Yet he was able to hit only 1 of 5 three-pointers.
Wilcox missed two of his jumpers in the last 15 seconds, when Washington needed them more desperately than ever.
"I was looking forward to it coming in," Johnson said. "I feel like I played hard. I like to think that I did a good job on him because he's a great player."
Johnson also credited the UA scout team for preparing him by running through Washington's plays but, even so, he may have been being modest. Miller called Johnson an "elite defender" who has improved greatly with practice and preparation.
"He's really a smart kid, scouting, the details of defense - he's got it," Miller said. "He learned a lot last season through trial and error, and Nick had a role last year and he's gotten the benefits of being thrown in the fire, like we did to him last season."
But early in the game, Johnson and just about everybody else struggled offensively. Arizona had three turnovers on its first four possession and seven in the first eight minutes.
Hill said it was reminiscent of UA's poor start a week earlier against UCLA, when the Wildcats missed 12 of 13 shots to start the game. But Miller went back even further than that, to a Dec. 4 game against Southern Miss in which UA trailed 35-27 at halftime.
The fact that the effort came nearly two full months after that Southern Miss game also ate away at Miller a bit.
"That was as bad of an offensive first half as we've had all season, along the lines of Southern Miss," Miller said. "It's kind of a struggle because we have individually talented guys but usually as the season goes, it becomes easier to play together as a team.
"It's not an intent issue where people don't want to play team ball but being able to pass, and take what the defense gives. We were so fortunate to be down five points in the first half and the reason why is we were playing really hard on defense. It was hard for them to score."
On StarNet: See more photos from the game at azstarnet.com/gallery
• What: No. 8 Arizona at Washington State
• When: 8 p.m. Saturday
• TV; radio: Pac-12 Arizona; 1290-AM, 107.5-FM