Not long after NAU cut the Arizona Wildcats’ lead under 20 points early in the second half Monday, Nick Johnson threw down a one-handed jam.
Then he returned on the next possession of UA’s 77-44 win over the Lumberjacks, and threw a bullet at Aaron Gordon to assist on another dunk.
With the No. 1 Wildcats suddenly up by 25, the game was effectively over. Yet when asked about that sequence, here’s what Johnson said:
“My personal thought is we had a bad second half,” Johnson said. “We were just lackadaisical on defense.”
This about a team that forced 18 NAU turnovers, scoring 23 points off them, and held the Lumberjacks to 36.4 percent shooting overall.
And from a guy who led the Wildcats with 20 points on 7-for-10 shooting, who also was called the team’s MVP of the nonconference season by coach Sean Miller after the game.
Standards, clearly, are higher.
The Wildcats are not only taking the nation’s top ranking into the new year but have now rolled through their nonconference season undefeated for the second straight season.
That means nine of Arizona’s 11 scholarship players have never lost a nonconference game, home, away or neutral.
‘That’s really hard to do,” UA coach Sean Miller said. “We have a lot of pride in that accomplishment.
“We don’t look at it as a burden but as a great honor.”
While Miller was also not happy with the second half, in which NAU hit 4 of 8 three-pointers and were outrebounded 18-16, the Wildcats had an excuse. It was their final game before a three-day break for Christmas, and against an opponent they were favored to beat by 28 points.
But again, excuses only count for so much around McKale Center these days.
“I mean, I think we were all anxious to get home,” Johnson said.
“We knew we had one more game and we let up a little bit on defense in the second half.”
Most of the Wildcats will head home for the break, while the team’s East Coast natives will spend time locally with friends or family.
The Wildcats will break for three-plus days before returning Friday night to begin preparation for their Pac-12 opener on Jan. 2 against Washington State at McKale Center.
Miller played his scholarship reserves heavily in both halves and began playing walk-ons with 2:17 to go. Miller used all his scholarship players except Kaleb Tarczewski and forward Zach Peters.
Peters didn’t appear for UA’s Dec. 11 game with New Mexico State because of an illness, and hasn’t played since then, but Miller said he didn’t play him Monday because of “where he’s at right now.”
Arizona took a 41-17 against the Lumberjacks at halftime after starting slowly.
UA held NAU to just one field goal over a nine-minute span late in the first half while Johnson led the Wildcats in first-half scoring with 14 points.
Arizona shot 50 percent from the field while outrebounding the Lumberjacks 15-12. NAU also committed 12 first-half turnovers, leading to 18 UA points, while the Wildcats had only two turnovers.
Arizona was playing for the second straight game without center Tarczewski, who sprained his foot on Dec. 14 at Michigan.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson started in his place again.
Arizona and NAU were tied at 11 eight minutes into the game with the Wildcats having made just 4 of 12 field goals at that point.
But Johnson hit two straight three-pointers to put UA up 17-11 with 10:57 left and Jordin Mayes later made a pair of free throws that gave the Wildcats a 21-13 lead with 9:46 remaining in the half.
It was the first time Mayes had scored since the Wildcats’ second game of the season, on Nov. 11 against Long Beach State. Mayes finished with five points, two rebounds and two assists.
“It feels great,” Mayes said.
The Wildcats went 12-0 in nonconference play last season but were able to play another nonconference game this season because they participated in the four-game NIT Season Tip-Off.
They eventually went to 14-0 last season before losing at Oregon in their third Pac-12 game.