TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona sophomore Nick Johnson has been in bigger games and had bigger performances, but perhaps none has been more satisfying than Saturday’s at Wells Fargo Arena.
The same could be said for seventh-ranked Arizona, which came away with what coach Sean Miller called a “hard-fought victory” over rival Arizona State just 10 months after the Sun Devils put an end to the Wildcats’ NCAA tournament hopes a season ago.
Afterward, Johnson said his 19 points and impressive all-around play were secondary to UA’s 71-54 win in a sold-out road environment.
“I’m just happy we won,” said Johnson, whose father, Joey, played for ASU in the late 1980s. “Every game is a big game for us from now on. We’re looking to keep on winning and challenge for a Pac-12 title.
“Personal goals? Well, that’s not really on my mind. It’s about team goals, and that will happen (in time).”
Johnson, a sophomore from nearby Gilbert, was recruited by ASU from the time he was an eighth-grader. The win, of course, had some significance for Johnson personally, particularly after he struggled a year ago, scoring just five points in the teams’ last meeting in Tempe.
“It’s always a good feeling to win at home,” Johnson said. “My dad did come here, but he’s a UA person at heart (now).”
Arizona improved 16-1 overall and 4-1 in the Pac-12 with the win, keeping pace with the conference leaders. ASU fell to 14-4 overall and 3-2 in the Pac-12.
For that, the Wildcats can thank Johnson and senior Mark Lyons, who may not bring back memories of Damon Stoudamire and Khalid Reeves (the 1994 Final Four team), Mike Bibby, Jason Terry and Miles Simon (the 1997 NCAA title team ) or Gilbert Arenas and Jason Gardner (the 2001 NCAA runners-up). But for one day at least, they had Arizona looking like Point Guard U once again.
“All I know is that Nick and I came ready to play today,” said Lyons, who had a game-high 24 points. “He was really aggressive, and that helped our team. When he plays aggressive, it just helps the team.”
Together, the dynamic duo tallied a collective 43 points, five assists and five steals. More importantly, they pressed the pace and generated a lot of pressure. Every shot was a dagger — or so it seemed.
“Personally,” said Lyons, “I feel we’re one of the best backcourts in the country. Nick doesn’t get enough credit for the things that he does and what he brings to this team. We wouldn’t be 16-1 without him. A lot of praise goes out to Nick for his effort.”
Johnson was tasked with being all over the court, specifically defending Jonathan Gilling, ASU’s best shooter. Gilling had just six points on five shots.
“I just tried to not get him any open shots and still help my team,” Johnson said. “As a team, we did better in not letting 3-point(ers go in).”
Arizona limited ASU to 5 for 20 from 3-point range and 39.1 percent shooting from the floor, eventually pulling away in the second half with an 11-0 run when it was 48-42 with 9:50 left. By the time Lyons drove to the basket for his eighth and final field goal of the night, Arizona was up 65-52 and just needing to run out the clock.
It helped that Jahii Carson picked up his third foul late in the first half and the fourth with just under 10 minutes to play, coinciding with UA’s game-changing run. He was stifled the rest of the way.
“I think it changed (the temp) tremendously,” said Carson, who had a team-high 22 points. “I mostly keep the point guards in front of me, but with me being in foul trouble, it puts my teammates in an awkward position to have to get out there and guard a smaller guard who can get in the pit and create just as much as I can.
“I think it had a huge swing. Guys have to step up and guard smaller guys that they’re not used to guarding. They’re used to having me step up and do that. I just think the temp changed when I had four fouls.”
ASU coach Herb Sendek agreed.
“They did a good job of attacking him with four fouls, and he was understandably cautious,” Sendek said. “I thought, defensively, that was difficult on us.”
That was UA’s plan. Attack. Attack. Attack. And that plan was made easier when ASU reserve guard Chris Colvin was suspended for the game for a violation of team rules, limiting the Sun Devils’ backcourt depth.
What did Lyons like about the Wildcats’ play?
“Our defense,” he said. “Our defense has gotten strong in the last two games. It shows. They didn’t make a lot of 3s. Our defensive effort was great.”
Miller said his team “defended with purpose” and that freshman Brandon Ashley had the best defensive games of his career, limiting ASU wing Carrick Felix to five points on 1 for 8 shooting (1 for 7 from 3-point range). Carrick also had seven turnovers.
“In the minutes he played, he contributed in a huge way,” Miller said of Ashley, who played 17 minutes. “Everyone on our team knows that. He was one of the many reasons our defense was better today.”
And on the offensive end it was Lyons, who took the ball to the basket with every opportunity. He hit 8 of 15 shots and went 6 for 6 from the free-throw line. He also had 12 points and three assists in the final 10 minutes.
Senior forward Solomon Hill, who finished with 13 points, called Lyons the “heart of the team.”
His performance came just days after Carson tweeted that he felt he was the best point guard in the Pac-12 to this point in the season. Lyons heard and took it all in.
“It wasn’t enough to get me mad,” Lyons said. “Or for me to come out and prove (something). I just had to come out and play my game.”
“I live for moments like this,” Lyons said. “This is when great players are made — when everybody is watching. You make your mark on the college level.”
His grit and aggressiveness have slowly and methodically rubbed off on Johnson, an already-confident player who has benefited from Lyons’ bravado.
“Mark has great belief in his ability, but he also believes in our team,” Miller said. “He’s used to winning and playing in big games.
“When one player feels that way, it can become contagious. That just hasn’t rubbed off on Nick but it’s rubbed off on everybody. Nick as a sophomore and Nick as a freshman, that’s the growth you want to see. He’s playing at a very high level.”