San Francisco —
Maples Pavilion, February 2004. Stanford is 19-0 and ranked No. 2. A guy named Nick beats Arizona with a 35-foot buzzer-shot.
A moment before Nick Robinson releases his deadly three-pointer, game tied at 77, Stanford guard Chris Hernandez signals frantically for a timeout.
The referees aren’t watching. The shot is good. Tiger Woods, sitting courtside, rushes the floor.
“The basketball gods were watching out for us,” Hernandez says in the locker room. “Thank the Lord.”
A week later Stanford soars to No. 1 in The Associated Press poll and ultimately stretches its winning streak to 26-0.
In the Arizona locker room, sophomore Andre Iguodala says, “If I had played better, we would have won; it’s all on me.”
Now, 10 years later, back at Maples Pavilion, Iguodala is sitting behind the bench of 20-0 Arizona. He is watching as a guy named Nick stands 20 feet from the basket with 56 seconds remaining, game tied at 55.
On Wednesday, it’s as if nothing has changed.
The Arizona-Stanford series is historic for its Maples Pavilion drama. Khalid Reeves, Sean Rooks, Michael Wright, Peter Sauer and Nick Robinson all made game-winners for and against highly ranked Wildcats and Cardinal teams.
This game, too, will produce an instant hero.
As the clock hits 56, the ball goes to UA sophomore Brandon Ashley, who shoots a 15-footer from the baseline. The ball ricochets over the rim, directly toward 6-11 Stanford center Stefen Nastic, who has established position over Arizona’s 7-foot Kaleb Tarczewski.
But after playing 30 minutes, having been on the floor for every possession since the 6:45 mark, Nastic’s legs are mush. He doesn’t have any lift. Tarczewski reaches over him and takes the rebound.
“It was the play of the game,” UA coach Sean Miller will say 30 minutes later.
Tarczewski immediately sees both T. J. McConnell and Nick Johnson, unguarded, 20 feet from the hoop. Stanford’s perimeter defenders, Chasson Randle and Anthony Brown, have collapsed inside, blocking out, hoping to prevent a long rebound to the Arizona guards.
Tarczewski fires a pass to Johnson, who releases a deadly three-pointer a half-tick before Randle can get in his face.
It has the same effect Reeves had in 1991 when he sprinted 94 feet in five seconds to beat Stanford 72-70. It was as final as Sauer’s baseline jumper in 1997, created when Stanford point guard Brevin Knight feints a drive to the bucket, drawing Bennett Davison away from Sauer for a fraction of a second. Stanford beats the eventual NCAA champions 81-80.
Into every team’s basketball life, a little luck must fall.
Nastic must mistime his jump on Ashley’s missed shot just as, in 2001, against 27-1 Stanford, UA center Loren Woods gets a pass with six seconds remaining, trailing 75-74. Rather than rush a 15-footer, Woods notices that Michael Wright has established down-low position on Stanford’s Jason Collins.
Wright was standing exactly where Nastic stood Wednesday.
Woods, a 7-footer not known as a passer, threads the ball to Wright, just out of Collins’ grasp. Wright scores. No. 1 Stanford (27-1) goes down 76-75.
Someone should do a movie on the unlikely twists and unexpected turns of the Arizona-Stanford series at Maples.
“I guess good fortune always plays a role, win or lose,” Miller says late Wednesday night in a corridor outside his team’s locker room.
In the second half, Nick Johnson does not make a field goal for 17 minutes
5 seconds. He opens the half with a three-pointer and is then shut out until the 2:36 mark, when his floater in the paint gives Arizona a 55-53 lead.
When your leading scorer goes 17 minutes without a bucket, on the road, how often can you realistically expect to win?
In those harrowing 17 minutes, Johnson has a shot blocked so emphatically by Josh Huestis that the crowd chants “YOU GOT SWATTED!” over and over.
In the end, it will be Johnson who swats the Cardinal.
“That’s what the leader on the team is supposed to do,” Johnson says. “If you’re shaky and kind of hesitant about everything, then everybody else will be. I’ve done the work to deserve this.”
In taut late-game situations against San Diego State, Michigan, UCLA and Utah, Johnson has eliminated luck from the equation, keeping Arizona undefeated, taking and making the game’s most meaningful shots.
In the summer of 2007, a few months before Lute Olson would withdraw from day-to-day coaching at Arizona, he assigns assistant coach Josh Pastner to start recruiting an eighth-grader from Gilbert.
Pastner would leave, followed by Olson, but three years later, Johnson agrees to join the Wildcats.
The basketball gods were watching out for Arizona after all.