Nick Johnson's block preserves unbeaten Wildcats' 68-67 victory over San Diego State.
By STEVE RIVERA FS Arizona
Well, more like paradise re-established for the University of Arizona basketball team.
Arizona coach Sean Miller said what he found – again – was Arizona’s “big heart” in Tuesday night's 68-67 win over San Diego State in the championship game of the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu.
“It was a great game,” Miller said in his postgame radio show. “You continue to learn about your team. One of the things we’ve all learned about our team is that we have a big heart and we have the ability to make big plays at the right time.”
Late into the Christmas evening, No. 3 Arizona did it again, just 10 days after beating then-No. 5 Florida in last-second fashion. Sophomore Nick Johnson turned into the team’s not-so-secret Santa when he flew in for an out-of-nowhere block on Chase Tapley's lay-up attempt in the closing seconds to keep Arizona one of just five unbeaten Division I teams.
“Nick’s block was incredible,” Miller said. “Without him there, the ball goes in the basket and we lose.”
Instead, Arizona is 12-0 and partying like it’s 1987-88, when it opened the season with a dandy dozen of victories before its first defeat.
This is the 25-year anniversary of that season, when Arizona made its first of four Final Four appearances. That team, led by the likes of Sean Elliott, Steve Kerr and Tom Tolbert, has been matched by this one featuring Johnson, Solomon Hill, Mark Lyons, Kevin Parrom and Brandon Ashley.
There they grow again.
“(There) was a resiliency throughout the game,” Miller said.
What Arizona found was an opponent that was just as athletic and quick as it was. The Aztecs made it tough on the Cats for most of the night, holding them to 37 percent shooting, including just 5 of 23 from 3-point range. The Wildcats also missed 8 of 27 free-throw attempts, though they did convert 13 of 16 in the final half, including a clutch pair by Lyons with 13 seconds left that gave them the margin of victory.
Lyons, who hit the game-winner against Florida and again had the ball in his hands as the clock ticked down, finished with nine points on 2-of-9 shooting. Hill led the Wildcats with 20 points, and Parrom came off the bench to score 17, including a pair of 3-pointers and a rebound basket that kept Arizona in the game.
“I can’t give Kevin Parrom enough credit,” Miller said. “He made a huge difference. For him to have 17 points … every shot he took seemed to be a big one. He played like a senior and he played like somebody who has been through a lot of adversity and knows how to handle it. He’s at home in pressure situations.”
San Diego State had won 11 consecutive games since losing to Syracuse in its season opener and also had an 11-game win streak against Pac-12 teams come to an end. The Aztecs were trying to knock off a top-five team for the first time in program history but came up one shot short.
Neither team shot well. San Diego State made 43 percent from the field, including 23 percent from 3-point range. But the Aztecs went on a 14-4 run to begin the second half and take their first lead of the game. Arizona, however, resettled and got recharged behind the play of Parrom and Hill.
Arizona gets a week off before starting the conference schedule against Colorado on Jan. 3 in Tucson. Miller said his team is ready, but it needs the break.
“We’ve tested ourselves in a number of different ways,” Miller said of the non-conference schedule. “We’ve played five games away from McKale Center. We’ve seen virtually every style. We’ve played against zones, mans and presses (on defense). We’re prepared and we’re healthy.”