SAN DIEGO (AP) — No. 6 Arizona knew it was in for a tough game even if San Diego State wasn’t ranked. The Wildcats were on the road.
“Playing at home or away is a completely different story and I think to play a true road game is something that we are proud we did,” Wildcats coach Sean Miller said after Arizona’s 69-60 victory Thursday night. “San Diego State has an incredible crowd and a fantastic home arena and a very-well coached team and a team that is used to winning.”
Nick Johnson scored 23 points and freshman Aaron Gordon added 16 points and eight rebounds for the Wildcats (3-0).
“We knew it was going to be a tough game,” Johnson said. “It’s big to win at San Diego State because they have a great home record. But we battled.”
J.J. O’Brien and Xavier Thames had 19 points each for the Aztecs (1-1), who had won two of the last three meetings with Arizona, the loss coming in the final seconds of last year’s Diamond Head Classic.
“Oh my gosh, that crowd was crazy,” Gordon said. “The whole student section was jumping up and down.”
Arizona had a 14-point lead midway through the second half, but San Diego State rallied, closing within four points on Thames’ layup with less than 2 minutes remaining.
“We had a chance,” Thames said. “But we couldn’t make the next play and good teams don’t let you make that good play. They’re good, they are very good, and they change shots.”
Gordon then had a soaring dunk off an inbounds pass from T. J. McConnell to put away the Aztecs.
At first McConnell looked for Johnson. Then he saw Gordon take flight and hit him with a perfect pass above the rim.
“I’ve never seen anything like that before,” McConnell said. “Well, maybe Blake Griffin, but what he did was amazing.”
Gordon, who is considered one of the top players in a well-stocked freshman class, smiled.
“T.J. threw it, I saw it going up and it worked out well,” he said.
Arizona prevailed despite four players being in foul trouble early in the second half.
“We didn’t talk about the fouls,” said Gordon, who finished with four. “We talked about to just keep on fighting.”
It easy to do when Gordon is on your side.
“He’s an incredible player,” Miller said. “What separates him is how he is as a person. He is fun guy to coach, a fun teammate and a very hard worker. We’re lucky to have him.”
The Wildcats finished with a 39-28 rebound advantage.
“I don’t think it was a lack of fight but at halftime we had one offensive rebound and we had missed 13 shots,” San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said. “They scored nine points off their offensive rebounds in the first half.”
The Wildcats used an 8-0 run — with a 3-pointer by Gordon the big shot — to take a 24-11 lead. Gordon went to the bench when he picked up his second foul and the Aztecs took advantage to get within six points on two free throws by Matt Shrigley with 4:33 left in the half.
Johnson’s three-point play put Arizona in front 31-22.
Gabe York, Arizona’s sparkplug off the bench, made a driving layup and another basket to give the Wildcats their largest lead of the half at 39-25. Shrigley hit a 3-pointer just before the halftime buzzer to cut the deficit to 11 points.
In the end, it was the Wildcats’ rebounding and lack of turnovers — 11 total; just three in the second half — that was the difference.
“To me,” Miller said, “it’s those two statistics that made us winners tonight.”