Top-ranked Wildcats take over late, survive ‘stress test’

Nick Johnson reacts during the final minutes of Arizona's 71-62 win over Washington at McKale Center.

TUCSON, Ariz. — University of Arizona president Ann Weaver Hart likened Saturday’s game with Washington to a "treadmill stress test."

Those old enough to get it understood, and those who are young will eventually: When the pressure’s on, the heart can handle only so much.

Arizona is no stranger to pressure at this point, as being No. 1 in the country comes with a price. But come next week, the Wildcats likely will be No. 1 again after they found a way to get past the Huskies 71-62 at McKale Center in front of an eventually relieved crowd.

Such has been the life for Arizona the last four weeks, as college basketball’s top-ranked team improved to 15-0, one win shy of its all-time best start of 16-0. That record was achieved in 1931-32 against the likes of, ahem, Dixie Junior College and the UA Alumni All-Stars.

These are different times in the Pac-12, where the Wildcats are now 2-0.  Every game is about survival.

Getting the other team’s best shot is the norm; it’s all about handling it.

"We’re carrying that right now, but it’s not a burden," Arizona coach Sean Miller said. "We fully expect that we’re going to get the other team’s best shot. It should bring out the best in us.

"When (opponents) show up in McKale Center, they are excited."

We fully expect that we’re going to get the other team’s best shot. It should bring out the best in us.

Arizona coach Sean Miller

It was hardly a Saturday afternoon stroll in the park, like many of the Wildcats’ games have been this year.

In the first half, Arizona had the lead for all of seven minutes and went into the half trailing 35-33. For its part, Washington was doing what other teams this season hadn’t been able to do, outrebounding the big, athletic Wildcats 17-12. And Huskies guard C.J. Wilcox was on his way to a 20-point day.

Then came the second half, where Arizona turned it on, limiting Washington to 30 percent shooting from the floor and outrebounding the Huskies 26-17.

"That’s what good teams do, battle through adversity," said Arizona leader Nick Johnson, who had a game-high 24 points. "They are a good team. Their record may not show it, but they are good. We made our run and made shots when it counted. …

"Offensive rebounding was big for us, hitting shots and running in transition. That’s the attitude of our team: We won’t give up."

For the Wildcats, it was largely a game of stretches — a couple dunks here, a couple dunks there, a 3-pointer there. It turned on a segment during the middle of the second half of which Miller said "we were really at our best."

He explained it as an "8- or 10-minute stretch where our defense was leading to our offense and we were really getting after it on both ends."

Washington led 52-51 with 10:09 left before Arizona put the clamps on, limiting the Huskies to just three baskets the rest of the way. They went 6:10 without a basket, allowing the Wildcats pull away.

"It didn’t feel like that to me," Miller said of the time between baskets. "I felt like they were scoring every time down. But our defense eventually took hold."

And again, it was that defense-to-offense thing. There was a dunk by Gabe York, a layup by Nick Johnson, a dunk by Johnson and a jumper by Aaron Gordon. By then, Arizona was up 65-58 and game was all but over.

"When they took the lead, I feel that we got away from the things we were trying to do both defensively and offensively," said Washington coach Lorenzo Romar, whose team is now 9-6 overall and 1-1 in the conference. "We had to hit home runs every time we took possession of the ball, and I don’t think we accomplished that. … (We) weathered the storm until the end."

Johnson and Gordon, who had 18 points and 11 rebounds, were just too much for the Huskies. Gordon had 10 rebounds in the second half.

Miller called the two "the difference" and referred to Gordon’s rebounding as the "dominant effort that really changed the game."

"And Nick is our team’s heart and soul," Miller said. "He does so many things. You can tell he’s been through so many conference games, because he’s accustomed to playing under pressure."

By the end, Arizona had 10 dunks, seven layups and all but three baskets from 15 feet and in. In all, the Wildcats went 24 for 57 from the field.

"Every team wants to get those transition baskets, because those are the shots you get before (opponents) are ready," Miller said. "The more you get of them, the results go your way. We did have quite of bit of transition opportunities, but they start with defense first."

That’s been Arizona’s constant all season. The Wildcats also continues to show that they have the personnel advantages on defenses to make it difficult for opponents, limiting Washington to 30 percent shooting from the floor in the second half. The Huskies shot 55.6 percent in the first half.

It was a far cry from just 38 hours earlier, when Arizona limited Washington State to just seven points in the first half and 20 percent shooting for the game.

"We’re looking for more games like Thursday night," Miller joked.

NOTES: After the game, Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne, president Hart and Miller held a press conference to announce an $8 million matching gift from an anonymous donor to go toward the in-progress renovation of McKale Center. Since announcing a $30 million fundraiser to help fund the renovations, UA has raised $1.6 million, bringing the entire fundraising effort to $15.8 million to date. Byrne said he is hoping to have the full $30 million by April.