LOS ANGELES — Arizona is at its best when it can turn a defensive stop into quick offense. It provided instructional video Friday.
Understanding it was playing another win-or-NIT game, Arizona blitzed Oregon State in the first 12 minutes of the second half to take a double-digit lead and never let it go in a 72-61 Pac-12 tournament semifinal victory at the Staples Center.
The Wildcats (23-10) are one step short of what it considered a must-win three-peat to make the NCAA tournament. While making up ground here, they are not about to place their fate in the caring hands of the NCAA tournament selection committee Sunday, when the 68-team tournament field is announced.
“We came here to get three, and we only got two. There is still work to do,” guard Kyle Fogg said.
“I don’t want to risk no chance. If we just go get the win, we don’t have to worry about nothing,” forward Jesse Parry said.
“We’re definitely excited and riled up about it.”
Arizona put itself in position when freshman Nick Johnson comfortably filled the point guard position in place of suspended Josiah Turner. While Turner was rated a little more highly out of high school than Johnson, it is Johnson who is stepping up at the right time.
Arizona went on a 14-2 run in the first 3:36 of the second half, and Johnson had a hand in all 14 – he made a three, a driving layup and a free throw when he was fouled on another driving layup, and he assisted on Solomon Hill’s layup and spot-up threes by Brendon Lavender and Fogg. A star was uncovered.
“Nick played huge tonight,” Fogg said. “As a freshman who doesn’t play the point guard, I think that’s pretty impressive. As he continues to work, I think he is going to be a great point guard in the future.
“He’s grown up fast. He’s a young guy. I’ve been in the same position, with not even near enough pressure. There is a lot of pressure on him to go out and perform every night, because our team really needs him to play well. As a freshman he has matured so quickly. Every game he has gotten better and better.”
With Johnson running the point, the Wildcats erased a 34-27 halftime deficit by dominating the first four, then the first eight, then the first 12 minutes of the second half. By the time a 29-10 run ended when Perry wheeled around Joe Burton for a slam dunk, Arizona led 56-44 with 7:50 remaining.
Johnson had nine points on 3 of 11 shooting, but it was his steady floor game that kept the offense running. He had five assists, one short of a season high, and only one turnover, adding a steal and a blocked shot.
“We weren’t getting stops in the first half at the end. Once we started getting stops, we got the rebound and we could push the ball. That’s what made it easier,” Johnson said.
“We came here to get three. We didn’t make it any secret. We felt like there were a few games during the regular season we let go. We definitely came here to get three, get the championship and be in the tournament.”
Steady Fogg led Arizona with 22 points and helped with a defensive effort that held Oregon State (19-14) to 37.7 percent shooting from the field. It held UCLA to 39 percent in a 66-58 quarterfinal victory Thursday.
Perry had his 12th double-double, his second in as many tournament games, with 16 points and 11 rebounds. His running mate, Solomon Hill, had 12 points and three steals before fouling out with 5:30 remaining, when he got a personal foul and a technical foul on the same play. There was no letup when freshman Angelo Chol replaced Hill. Chol had four points, four rebounds and three blocked shots in 17 minutes.
Arizona made 9 of 18 3-pointers, shots made easier when set up in transition. Fogg made three, and Hill and Brendon Lavender made two apiece.
Arizona is used to must-win games. It won an NCAA championship by beating three No. 1 seeds in 1997. But it has never been in this position – win the conference tournament championship or fall to the NIT. The Wildcats were beaten on Washington guard Isaiah Thomas’ last-second jump shot in the Pac-10 tournament title game last season, but that only affected its seeding went.
“This is the test of all tests. Last year we made it to this and what did we do? We fractured at the very end and we lost,” senior guard Brendon Lavender said.
“Now that it almost for the (NCAA) tournament, it’s an huge game.”