TUCSON, Ariz. — High-flyer Nick Johnson went in for a thunderous dunk, and … missed. Only to see teammate T.J. McConnell gets the long rebound and hit a 3-pointer. That is how good it got for third-ranked Arizona on Wednesday.
"That was planned," Johnson deadpanned.
Life is seemingly back in order after Arizona soundly defeated California 87-59 in McKale Center to run its record to 26-2 overall and 13-2. And everything said is funny when you’re winning, and in this case winning big.
"It was going well for us," Johnson continued. "I missed a dunk and I feel I got fouled a bit on the arm but got it back. I actually wanted the ball back (he smiled) but T.J. shot it. We’re always getting on him to be aggressive and shoot the ball. It was great to see him shoot it."
And make it as Arizona did for the second consecutive game shots fell. Not at a 64 percent rate like in Arizona’s big win last weekend against Colorado, but Wednesday’s night was its second consecutive rout. This time it was 50.8 percent, far better than its 30-something percent it had been for most of February.
"We played very well tonight, one of our best games of the season," Arizona coach Sean Miller said. "You can make the case at Colorado and tonight might have been the best back-to-back games we’ve played. One of the things is that our offense has continued to develop.
"I don’t think we have a bunch of shooters that are hot as much as that we’re playing well together."
Strike the Kumbaya music. Arizona’s feel-good season is back on track after near misses and a couple of losses.
"We’re definitely starting to get back into a groove," said Arizona center Kaleb Tarczewski who had 16 points. "We’re just trying to get better every day."
Everything that could go right — did in the win over visiting California. The punches were plentiful and painful for Cal’s Mike Montgomery. Cal is now 18-10 and 9-6.
"They’re good," Montgomery said. "You have to give credit where credit is due. They were solid and a little angry having lost to us. They’re making shots now and at our place they weren’t making their shots. They are playing really well right now."
Arizona, like it did for the season’s first 21 games, is living a charmed life and has now played its two best back-to-back games of the season.
You know things are going well when Johnson is playing at, or near, the top of his game and Arizona’s piranha-like defense attacks at the highest level, making it very uncomfortable for the Golden Bears to get a clear shot. Cal shot 43 percent.
"I wouldn’t say (the defense) is ramping up but it’s consistent," Miller said, admitting a four-minute segment wasn’t all that great. Cal went on an 11-0 run to close the gap to 55-47. "We took that timeout and we got back to who we are and we cut their transition out. That’s what you want to see when we are not perfect."
And, well, Aaron Gordon hits his free throws as he did in hitting two in a row in the second half that had the crowd roaring. He went 5 for 6 after going into the game hitting just 41 percent of his free throws.
"I know you guys (media) don’t always believe me when I tell you he’s a better free throw shooter in practice," Miller said, "but he is better. He may not be an 80 percent free throw shooter right now but he’s far better than the percentage he has right now. I hope a game like this can give him confidence because we need everything moving forward. And him shooting free throws … as he makes free throws our offense gets better."
And right now is rolling.
Even if the Wildcats didn’t use the word revenge this week when talking about it, they sure played like it had something to prove in its rematch with Cal, the team that handed Arizona its first loss of the season earlier this month.
"We’re just trying to win a (Pac-12) championship," said Johnson, who had a game-high 22 points. "We’re taking it game by game. It definitely feels good to get back in our groove."
The game may have had special meaning to Johnson, who went 1 for 14 from the floor against Cal in the defeat.
"I’m trying to get back in my groove myself," he said. "Just trying to keep with it."
He is Miller said admitting that the first California game may have helped Johnson become the most impressive Wildcat on the court on Wednesday. Even on a night when four Arizona starters scored in double figures and the team’s sixth man (Rondae Hollis-Jefferson) had a double-double (12 points, 10 rebounds).
"Nick has a lot of pride and he knew he didn’t shoot the ball well at Cal," Miller said when asked about the motivation for Johnson to play well. "He played well at Cal in other areas. But Nick is playing as well as he’s played all season long. Even those four or five games when he wasn’t shooting the ball well I continued to say he was doing a lot of other things well. He’s shooting the ball and has picked up where he left off."
Miller called him "a dominant performer" in a laundry list of dominant performers and highlight moments. Arizona had seven dunks, one by Johnson, four by Hollis-Jefferson and two by Gordon. Arizona must savor the moments — better known as Arizona’s feel-good moments. Miller said all the freshmen are getting better, particularly Hollis-Jefferson and Gordon.
Then came this from Miller: "I don’t know how much longer we’re going to have some of these guys, so … this isn’t like Sean Elliott (Arizona’s former All-American) where we’re going to love watching them for four years. We will see. We’re not at that point yet. They are freshman and very, very talented."