LOS ANGELES – Sean Miller wanted his freshmen to be solid in the Pac-12 tournament.
He got that and a dose of spectacular in Arizona’s victory over UCLA on Thursday.
Nick Johnson, forced to take a bigger role at point guard because of the sudden suspension of fellow freshman Josiah Turner, mixed a consistent floor game with a career-high four blocked shots, including a quick 1-2 rejection series that brought the Staples Center crowd to a roar.
With 15 ½ minutes remaining, UCLA’s Tyler Lamb broke down the floor for what appeared to be an easy layup that would have cut Arizona’s lead to 38-35. Johnson, who has a 39-inch standing vertical jump, leaped to block the shot before it got to the rim. When Jerime Anderson got the ball and took it to the basket, Johnson sent that away, too.
“I was just trying to chase him down. Luckily he didn’t dunk it. He just went to lay it up, and we lucked out there. I saw the ball coming back and I just jumped again. Fortunately I got another one. It happened pretty quick,” Johnson said.
“He is so athletic,” Lavender said.
“I knew he was going to block the first one. He timed it. If he didn’t block it, they would have scored. It was a big momentum changer. The second one was even bigger.”
Johnson also blocked shots by each of the Wear twins, Travis and David, to help Arizona hold its lead in the final three minutes. He hunted down David Wear from the other side of the floor to swat his shot and preserve an eight-point lead in the final two minutes.
“There were just a lot of opportunities, and I took advantage of them,” Johnson said.
Only Hassan Adams (42 inches) and Chase Budinger (41 inches) have higher standing vertical jumps than Johnson in recent Arizona history.
Johnson had five points and three rebounds in 31 minutes, coimmitting only two turnovers, and he ran the point for much of the late stages after alternating there with Jordin Mayes for most of the game. Johnson’s entry pass to Angelo Chol led to a three-point play and gave Arizona an uncatchable 58-51 lead with 4:43 remaining.
Johnson, who is second on the team with 75 assists, is aware of the heightened expectations placed on him in the Pac-12 tournament in the absence of Turner, who remains a part of the team, Miller said, although his supsension will last through the Pac-12 tournament. The two will talk about the future next week, Miller said.
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“The seniors, they’ve done all they can do right now,” said Johnson, ticking off the names of Jesse Perry, Kyle Fogg and Lavender. “It’s on us (freshmen) to put it over the top. They’re doing all they can do. We just have to take it from there.”
Fogg, who serves as a mentor to Johnson, took time earlier this week to encourage him, even before Turner was suspended.
“I told him at practice we are going to need him to win this tournament. ‘We can’t win without you.’ He went out there and did great, and I expect him to be out there tomorrow,” Fogg said.
“Nick’s like a little brother to me. Being a freshman is hard, especially playing two positions. Even if he doesn’t think he is playing well, he is playing well. Tonight, he may not have thought he had a great game, but he had four blocks. Sometimes when you are young like that, you don’t realize how big a plays those are.”