Greg Hansen: Winning on the road need not be pretty

Arizona's Nick Johnson strips the ball from Washington's Aziz N'Diaye during the first half as Kaleb Tarczewski defends from behind. Arizona coach Sean Miller later minced no words: "Nick's an elite defender."


The past became the present Thursday because, as always, Washington was rolling again, leading Arizona by double figures, as Alaska Airlines Arena continued to be the most menacing address the Wildcats have visited in 30 years.

"We had 10 turnovers so fast that any coach would be furious," said UA senior Solomon Hill. "We were terrible."

Arizona had lost five consecutive games at the AAA, the worst away-from-home streak by a Wildcat team since losing seven straight to UCLA and Oregon State from 1979 to 1985. The AAA is a furnace when the Dawg Pack gets woofing, and when Arizona trailed 16-5 Thursday the place was an over-heated kennel.

About the only way Arizona could win was for Washington to play worse. And, 90 minutes later, it had. Much of the UW's wounds were self-inflicted.

The Wildcats won 57-53 because the Huskies couldn't make a free throw when they absolutely had to, and because they couldn't make a three-pointer (1 for 12 overall) when one might have turned the game, and because, with the game at stake, they couldn't make a stop against Hill or Nick Johnson.

"It was fun to see what our team was made of," said UA freshman center Kaleb Tarczewski, who, given the circumstances, had his best game as a collegian, with 10 points and eight rebounds. "If you win a game like this on the road, when you're down and the crowd is all over you, it says a lot about your character."

Indeed, it was a character win for the Wildcats, not an elegant one, and on the road in January, that's often the difference between playing for first place and fourth place in March.

"To win on the road when you have a (first) half like we did, hopefully it's a telling moment that we're on our way to having a great season," said Miller, sucking a cough drop outside his team's dressing room.

Miller was quick to leave the old arena, happy to catch a late-night charter flight to Spokane, Wash., and maybe enjoy some peace at 35,000 feet after a choppy game that didn't lack for suspense.

Miller, Hill and Kevin Parrom had not won in Seattle until Thursday, part of the school's 0-5 streak in which the Huskies won by a cumulative 53 points, the single worst stretch of road basketball at Arizona in three decades.

"Hey, we pulled it out," said Hill. "This is a game we would've lost my first three years."

Much of it is that Washington's roster has been compromised by a series of early defections to the NBA, but another part is that the Huskies' leading shooter, C.J. Wilcox, couldn't get an unobstructed look at the basket Thursday. Nick Johnson gloved him. Isn't that what Gary Payton used to say when he shut down an opposing shooter?

Johnson wore Wilcox out, forcing him to miss 12 of 16 shots. It wasn't the first time Wilcox struggled this year; he was 2 for 12 in a loss to UConn and 5 for 14 in an unthinkable home loss to the Albany Great Danes.

"Nick's an elite defender," said Miller, who suggested the sophomore shooting guard - who also played a bit at the point - was the best player on the court Thursday.

Johnson is turning not only into a very good player, but a winning player. At one point Thursday, he was 1 for 7 from the field. A lot of times, a sophomore like Johnson would dissolve in a situation like that, but on Thursday he turned the game with a three-pointer, giving Arizona a 37-35 lead, and led the team's defense and transition offense down the stretch.

When didn't he have the ball in his hands?

And, sure, Johnson made six foul shots when they counted. By comparison, the Huskies missed six of their last nine free throws. You can't do that, even at home.

Washington has never blinked at playing an Arizona team ranked in the top 10, and especially not against the No. 8 Wildcats on Thursday. The Huskies play with unusual confidence at home, a lot like the Oregon Ducks, and that's much of the reason they won here against No. 4 Arizona in 1991, No. 7 Arizona in 1992, No. 10 Arizona in 1997, No. 10 Arizona in 1999, No. 9 Arizona in 2004 and No. 9 Arizona in 2005.

But this year there was no Nate Robinson to score 31, no Jon Brockman to have a 15-15 double-double, no Quincy Pondexter to score 30.

These are teams headed in opposite directions. By winning at one of the Pac-12's most challenging venues, the Wildcats are a stock to buy. By losing a fifth home game this season, the Huskies are not a working vision of a NCAA tournament contender.

In the last 10 years, when UW basketball took advantage of the Lute Olson transition years, the Huskies forced their will on Arizona, averaging 86 points in 10 games at the AAA, winning seven times.

Washington seemed to have an excess of big-game players.

But now, after four mighty swings at Alaska Airlines Arena, Sean Miller finally hit one into the seats.

He's had better days as a coach, but few that were more of a relief.

Contact Greg Hansen at 573-4362 or