LAS VEGAS, Nev. – This time, no additional scrutiny was required. No second look necessary.
The game got close, but not close enough to keep No. 18 Arizona from holding off Colorado 79-69 in the Pac-12 tournament quarterfinals at the MGM Grand Arena in the latest installment in what has become one of the most spirited rivalries in the league.
The Wildcats (25-6) led for the final 35 minutes, although the Buffaloes got within two points before Nick Johnson scored on a post-up move with 34.6 seconds remaining for a 73-69 lead as Arizona scored the final eight points of the game.
After a Colorado miss, Mark Lyons made two free throws, and Johnson blocked Askia Booker’s attempt on the next possession to send Arizona into a semifinal game against No. 21 UCLA on Friday night. The Bruins won both meetings this season, by nine points and five.
“Obviously, UCLA has talented players,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “In terms of us being able to score on them, we have to be really unselfish, move, create great shots. I think that any time a team beats you twice, you really want to get that one win. So we’re going to give it our best shot. I think we have a team that’s committed to trying to come up with a great game plan and execute it. Whether we do it or not, we’ll see.”
Johnson, who has been playing well recently, had 18 points on 6-of-7 shooting from the field, and he made both his 3-pointers. He also had three assists, and his decision to take Booker to the basket for his final hoop created a mismatch that Colorado could not counter.
“I just tried to exploit my size on Booker. I mean, I got to the lane and finished the shot,” Johnson said.
From there, Lyons hit four free throws and Grant Jerrett made two while Colorado missed its last three shots.
The end was nowhere near as messy as the first meeting, which Colorado appeared to win on a 3-pointer at the buzzer that was waved off when officials, using TV replay, ruled time had expired. The Buffs lost in overtime but won the rematch in Boulder by 12.
It was also much more satisfying for Arizona than the last time they met in the Pac-12 tournament, when Colorado beat UA in the championship game 53-51 to complete a four-game run into the NCAA tournament field and drop the Wildcats into the NIT.
“I know that we respect them a great deal. They’re very well‑coached,” Miller said. “We have similarities in terms of our style. They take a lot of pride in their man‑to‑man defense; we do as well. They have some really talented players, and obviously we do too. I think both teams play hard. When you have those similarities and qualities, and then you play really, really hard and play to win, many times the game plays itself out like it did here today.”
Arizona is a lock to make the NCAAs, and it could help its seeding with its first Pac-12 tournament title since 2000. The Buffs (21-11) also appear to have clinched a spot in the NCAA tournament because of their strong RRI rating and strength of schedule, boosted by victories over Baylor and Colorado State.
“We’re one of the top 37 at-large (teams) in my mind. That’s all I’m going to say about it,” Colorado coach Tad Boyle said.
Spencer Dinwiddie led Colorado with 18 points, mostly due to his 9-of-10 free-throw shooting. He was only 4 for 12 from the floor while being guarded mostly by Johnson, who said defending Dinwiddie also helped him get into an offensive rhythm. He guarded both Dinwiddie and Booker off-and-on in the previous games.
“I felt that Coach made a good decision to switch me on to Spencer. I got to pick the ball up and move a little bit and get going. I think that led to good shots on the offensive end,” Johnson said.
Andre Roberson had 15 points and 11 rebounds in his second game after missing last weekend with mononucleosis. Booker added 12 points and Xavier Johnson had 11. The Buffs shot 43 percent from the field and were 5 for 12 from 3-point range.
“We were really much more aware of how they got them,” Miller said. “We tried to be even more aggressive on the ball screens and off the ball, really worry more about our man and less about the help. And I thought Nick, as he can do, really stepped up and made the game hard.
“It’s not always that you pitch a shutout defensively as much as how much your effort level can make the other team or other player work to score. There is no question that his talent and effort level on defense made the game harder for their guards. Many times our defense starts with Nick.”
Lyons had 14 points and Solomon Hill had 13 and seven rebounds. Jordin Mayes and Brandon Ashley made major contributions off the bench, scoring eight points apiece in a total of 28 minutes. Ashley also had five rebounds.
Mayes and Johnson had 3-pointers, and Ashley scored twice in a 12-3 run that gave Arizona a 20-11 lead midway through the first half. Arizona led by 11 at the half and increased the margin to 14 at 54-40 on Mayes’ second 3-pointer with 12:27 left.
“Jordin gave us a spark. We talked before the game that in tournament play, it’s many times a guy who doesn’t start who is the difference, who comes into the game and makes big plays,” Miller said.
Added Boyle: “When you look at their lineup, they’ve got the most quality depth of anybody in our league. And they go 10 deep.”
Lyons went just 2 for 9 from 3-point range, but his second make, with 2:02 remaining, gave the Wildcats a 71-64 lead, temporarily blunting the Buffaloes’ comeback. Lyons took an inbounds pass from Hill as he was moving away from the basket and put up a fadeaway shot just before the shot clock expired.