Nick Johnson was the difference against San Diego State. Again.
Arizona’s junior leader led the Wildcats to a 69-60 win over host San Diego State on Thursday night in what coach Sean Miller referred to as a victory the team will remember all season.
In truth, it’s probably one many — including some on the NCAA selection committee — will look to when seedings are announced in March.
Is it still too early to talk about the postseason already? Probably, but big wins are big wins, even when you’re the No. 6 team in the country. The Wildcats are now 3-0.
“I’m proud of our team and I’m proud of our program,” Miller said after the game on CBS’s telecast. “A lot of teams don’t go and play true road games (in November) in this atmosphere and win. To me, it’s something that will last the entire season. We had to earn everything.”
Arizona did, dominating San Diego State on the boards and on defense. The Wildcats won the rebounding battle 39-28 and held the Aztecs to 36 percent shooting from the floor (18-50). Cutting back on turnovers in the second half also helped. Arizona finished with 11 turnovers overall but just three in the final 20 minutes.
“It’s a big reason why we won the game,” Miller said on his postgame radio show. “Any time you play San Diego State, who has the most rebounds has a huge advantage.”
Arizona led wire to wire but got a little scare late in the second half when San Diego State, which had been down by 12, made a run to make it 62-58. But freshman phenom Aaron Gordon, who finished with 16 points (12 in the first half) dunked on an inbound pass from T.J. McConnell with 1:21 left to give Arizona some cushion at 64-58.
From there, it was all Johnson, who was calm and composed, tying a career high with 23 points. He hit four consecutive free throws in the final 38 seconds to seal the win. It may not have been as dramatic as last year, when he secured Arizona’s 68-67 win over San Diego State in Hawaii with a last-second block on what appeared to be an easy layup, but it was still a clutch performance.
“Nick played like the poised upperclassman that he is,” Miller said. “He made some big free throws, and I thought he made some of the biggest plays in the game.”
Arizona played on a tightrope with Gordon and Brandon Ashley in foul trouble most of the game. Reserve Rondae Hollis-Jefferson eventually fouled out while Johnson, Gordon, Ashley and center Kaleb Tarczewski finished the game with four fouls.
“We obviously fouled, and we’ll have to take a look at it and correct it and make sure we’re not putting us at risk when you’re in dire straits in foul trouble through the game,” Miller said.
San Diego State outscored Arizona 20-16 from the free-throw line. Despite the deficit, Miller was pleased with the Wildcats’ 16-of-22 performance at the line after they struggled in that area in their first two games. And it was just enough in a tough game in a tough environment.
Not coincidentally, Miller had told his players earlier in the day that, being a big game, they had to be prepared. But that was unlikely to be much of a problem for Arizona given that three starters — Johnson, Ashley and Tarczewski — were pivotal in the run to the Sweet 16 a season ago.
“Our guys have confidence … they have played in huge momentum games,” Miller said. “The Diamondhead Classic a year ago (being one). I’m not worried about that, about our players from that perspective. We, as a team, just need to get better. We have a lot to get better at. Our depth has to continue to emerge. Guys have to come off and play well.”
Speaking of depth, concerns about a short bench came to fruition against San Diego State, as Miller stuck with an eight-man rotation despite the foul trouble.
Miller went out of his way to laud Tarczewski, a 7-footer who limited 6-foot-8 Josh Davis to two points and a 1-for-7 effort from the field. Davis, a transfer from Tulane, was expected to play a big role for the Aztecs against the Wildcats. Instead, he was a nonfactor.
“From a defensive perspective, (Tarczewski’s) size doesn’t show up on the stat sheet,” Miller said, “but I thought he had a real impact.”
While Johnson and Tarczewski got most of the postgame attention, Gordon kept Arizona in front in the first half in a game in which he looked every bit as good as advertised. He had 12 points, six coming on two deep 3-pointers, to help the Wildcats build a first-half lead they never relinquished.
“Aaron was terrific, (but) it didn’t seem he played 31 minutes,” Miller said, referring to Gordon’s foul trouble. “It seemed like he played 24, 25. He’s obviously a special player.”