When Arizona junior guard Nick Johnson hit a 3-pointer in transition with 6:22 left in the game, he did a quick celebratory jump with Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and at that moment you could see coach Sean Miller break a slight smile.
Miller doesn’t smile much during games. Smirks, yes; smiles, no. But on Friday night at Madison Square Garden, Miller had good reason to smile. After a slow start, fourth-ranked Arizona pulled ahead and then pulled away for a 72-66 win over sixth-ranked Duke 72-66 for the NIT Season Tip-Off championship.
“I tell you, I’m really ecstatic that we were able to win this tournament here in the Garden,” Miller told reporters in New York. “Everybody here knows what a special place this is. We talk to our players a lot about it. … So everybody embraced where we were, because they knew it was a big stage, and for us to get on a plane and travel about 15 hours tonight, it’s going to be a nice plane ride home, because I think we feel good about how hard we played and what we were able to accomplish.”
Johnson’s basket was part of a 20-5 scoring spree that eventually ballooned to a 24-8 run. Johnson, who was named the tournament MVP, also started the rally, giving UA a tie at 45 with 11:07 left.
And when he hit his second 3-pointer, the Wildcats’ celebration was on.
It was a far cry from earlier in the week, when Arizona struggled to get past Drexler in the semifinals on Wednesday. On Friday, Arizona played with poise and purpose. And it ought to be cause to reconsider for those who might have been questioning the Wildcats for their struggles to put away Drexel.
UA’s height and length are simply too much for most teams, and when things are going well, Arizona is — and will be — one of the best teams in the country.
It was exactly that against Duke, a team that has now lost twice, both to teams in the top four (No. 2 Kansas was the other).
“Two things you can’t practice against are quickness and length,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “We have quickness. We don’t have length. They have great length on their team.”
What it all means is that Arizona is now 7-0, has a marquee win over Duke (again, after winning the last meeting in the 2011 Sweet 16) and is the champion of the NIT for the fourth time in program history. The Wildcats also prevented the Blue Devils from getting their fifth NIT title; Duke had won 15 consecutive games in the NIT and 15 of 17 at Madison Square Garden.
“It’s huge,” Arizona associate head coach Joe Pasternack said on a postgame radio show in place of Miller. “Any time you can beat a national team like Duke to give yourself exposure and your team confidence that you can play with anyone in the country is huge for us. The key will be how we respond in this quick turnaround. We can’t get full of ourselves.”
Arizona faces Texas Tech on Tuesday in Tucson.
But first, the Wildcats get to enjoy their throne as kings of New York. They earned it, holding arguably the best player in the country in Duke fab freshman Jabari Parker to 19 points on 7-for-21 shooting. It was the first time this season Parker was held below 20 points. He went 0 for 5 from beyond the 3-point line.
“We had an all-out effort on Parker in the second half,” Pasternack said. “We weren’t going to guard him with one player but out whole team.”
Said Krzyzewski: “Jabari gets a lot of attention, and it was a good, physical game. His shots just didn’t go down.”
It took a village in every way, although it’s very clear the village will include just seven or eight players for Arizona in competitive games. Miller used just eight Friday night, but those eight meshed and wreaked havoc on the Blue Devils, who scored 21 points fewer than their season average. They were just 10 for 28 in the second half.
“Our team was excited to play Duke, as most young men would be,” Pasternack said. “The defensive performance they put together (was commendable).”
UA used Hollis-Jefferson, Johnson and Aaron Gordon in a rotation against Parker.
“You have to expend a lot of energy,” Gordon said in an ESPN postgame interview about defending Parker. “That’s pretty much what it comes down to. If you have the energy on defense, you can take a break on offense. I tried to put all my energy on defense.”
Not exactly all: Gordon finished with 10 points, seven rebounds and four assists. He was one of five Arizona players in double figures, with Johnson leading the way with 15 points. Brandon Ashley, who also spent a bit of time on Parker, had 13 points before fouling out. Kaleb Tarczewski had 10 points and nine rebounds, and point guard T.J. McConnell had 10 points and eight assists.
“We’re an all-around team. Really you could see it in the box score. It was pretty even all the way around,” Johnson said in the postgame interview room. “We’re a good team and we can play with anybody.”