LAS VEGAS — It was a desert storm in Las Vegas on Friday.
Proceed with caution when facing fourth-ranked Arizona and the Pac-12 Conference’s top-seed here at the MGM, and for that matter the rest of the way.
Arizona’s offensive performance in the second half against Colorado made it haboob-like for the Buffaloes, a team that hadn’t seen such a performance since, well, the last time the two teams met last month.
Take two in Vegas. Arizona made road kill of the Buffaloes in its 63-43 victory, outscoring Colorado 36-19 in the second half to put the Wildcats in Saturday’s Pac-12 championship game against second-seeded UCLA at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
Arizona (30-3) had just one more field goal (12) after halftime than it did in the first half, but every one was a blow to the body and the psyche of Colorado (23-11)
"It’s fun, I’m not going to lie," said Arizona’s T.J. McConnell, who contributed to 22 of Arizona’s points with five assists and 12 points. "But we can’t let that affect our game. When we go on runs we have to keep getting stops as we’ve done all year. It all starts defensively and we’ve got to keep it that way."
Things went so well offensively — Arizona shot 60 percent and dominated the boards 41-25 — it looked easy.
"We were executing on offense," McConnell said. "So, I think if we do that on a nightly basis, it’s going to be pretty tough for us to lose."
For its second game in a row, Arizona blindsided its opponent with defense. Colorado shot a season-low 29. 4 percent from the floor and was limited to the fewest points for a half (19) and season.
"We lost to a darn good Arizona team," Tad Boyle started his press conference. "â¦ We knew they were good defensively, and we knew we were going to have to make some shots to beat them. We couldn’t get going. Their defense has something to do with that."
While everyone wanted to talk about Arizona’s strike-in-a-blink offense and any one of its six dunks, it always came back to the defense.
"It’s been our No. 1 focus from day one," said Nick Johnson, who was a human highlight reel and had a game-high 16 points. "We knew we had the athletes this year that can really be the top defense in the country. That’s always been our goal. The last two games we’ve just been putting it together."
Since arriving in Clark County, Arizona has been the marquee show on the strip — especially at the MGM … Sorry David Copperfield. Funny, but Miller said there was no "trick" to his team’s defense. Play hard, get back in transition, and defend the ball.
And Arizona has been as good as advertised. No smoke and mirrors needed. When all things are clicking — as they did in the second half with Arizona hitting 12 of 20 shots and limiting the Buffaloes to 22.7 percent — it seems like it is unbeatable.
"It definitely feels good," said Johnson, smiling. "When you add that with our great defense it feels really good (and) it feels like we can play with anybody in the country."
The question can anyone play with Arizona when all this is happening?
With so many must-watch plays it’s hard to pick the top one:
Was it Johnson’s out-of-the-sky alley-oop dunk on a pass from Aaron Gordon to make it 19-13?
Or Johnson’s reverse alley-oop dunk from a T.J. McConnell pass at 36-29?
Or Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s power-move dunk to make it 38-29 a player later?
Or Gordon’s poster block on a driving Xavier Johnson when Arizona was in the middle of a 17-3 run.
Or, or, or.
"It definitely feels good to have dunk after dunk after dunk," Johnson said.
In fact, Arizona coach Sean Miller said the Wildcats, a team that has looked spectacular at times, "haven’t played better basketball at any time this year than we did in the final 20 minutes."
So, that’s saying something.
Now, back to the dunks where Johnson continues to one-up himself. The reverse dunk with 15:44 left brought the mostly Arizona crowd to its feet for the umpteenth time. It was Johnson’s favorite.
"I told him before the play that I was going backdoor, coach had called the play," Johnson said. "He had been hesitant to throw me lobs. I tell him that I don’t have a 47-inch vert (vertical leap) for nothing. You need to trust me. It worked out."
McConnell said it’s not that he doesn’t trust the pass, but he wants to make the perfect one. As for the dunk, well, "it was one of the greatest dunks I’ve seen in a while."
Johnson said the team gets hyped after dunks, calling big runs the "biggest play in basketball" and when you have so many things going right.
Friday night under the lights it was like 1997-98 all over again when guys like Mike Bibby, Michael Dickerson, Miles Simon and Jason Terry made it look so easy, blitzing teams with offense.
That group won a national title in 1997 and then fell in the Elite Eight in 1998 … Arizona starts that journey next week in the NCAAs. Until then, it’s onto the Pac-12 title in front of what to this point has felt like McKale Center North with more than 80 percent of the fans from Arizona.
"I believe we feed off of them," Miller said of the crowd.
"We’re now 20-0at home," Johnson joked, counting the last two games as home games. "We’ve proven ourselves on the road."