Originally Published: March 27, 2014

Nick Johnson arrives just in time for Arizona

By C.L. Brown | ESPN.com

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Arizona's Rondae Hollis-Jefferson fouled out with 4 minutes, 40 seconds left and the Wildcats nursing a one-point lead. As he made his way to the bench, Nick Johnson had the nerve to tell him the Wildcats would not lose.

"This is not going to be the last game of the season," Johnson said.

And Johnson, the guy who was at that point 0-for-10 from the field, was going to make sure of that?

Well, yeah.

Johnson scored 15 points in the game's final three minutes -- including 10-for-10 from the free throw line -- to lift the top-seeded Wildcats to a 70-64 win over San Diego State in the NCAA tournament. Arizona will face No. 2 seed Wisconsin in the West Region final on Saturday.

"It was amazing for a kid to be able to do that after not making shots for about 25, 30 straight minutes," Arizona coach Sean Miller said.

It was 37 minutes, 16 seconds to be precise.

Not only did Johnson score 15 of the Wildcats' final 16 points, it was the most for any player in the last five minutes of a NCAA tournament game in the past five postseasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

It was hard to fathom such a drastic turnaround.

The Aztecs were determined from the start not to let Johnson beat them again. Johnson scored 23 in their 69-60 win at SDSU on Nov. 14. Aztecs coach Steve Fisher put 6-foot-7 forward Dwayne Polee II, who did not play in the regular-season meeting, on the 6-foot-3 guard. Polee's length clearly bothered Johnson early. Even when Polee was no longer defending him, Johnson still couldn't find the basket.

Johnson's 10th shot agonizingly kept his oh-fer streak perfectly intact, dipping halfway into the basket before rimming back out. That was seemingly the tell-tale sign for Johnson that it just wasn't his night.

"Trust me, I wanted to say it a few times," Johnson said. "It was the one where I kind of shot a little bank shot and I thought it was in, but it rolled out. I just had to give a little smile."

It was quite the cryptic grin.

That's when Brandon Ashley knew Johnson was about to get it going. Ashley, who's foot injury at California on Feb. 1 sidelined him for the season, has been Johnson's teammate since the two played at Findlay Prep in Nevada.

He recalled a game against the Iowa Barnstormers when Johnson had a similar first half of futility only to take over the game.

"He always finds a way to come out of it," Ashley said. "I was sitting there on the sidelines, I wasn't worried at all. I have the utmost confidence in him."

Johnson's teammates saw his frustrations. Whether it was in the deep sighs he took as the misses piled up or the slumping shoulders that accompanied his jogs to the huddle.

Johnson, the self-described "old guy on the team," normally sees his role as the pick-me-up guy. He's the eternal optimist who encourages others to persevere through struggles. Against the Aztecs, he found himself the beneficiary of his teammates' encouragement.

It was reiterated during mini-huddles before free throws and nearly every stoppage in play when Arizona had the ball. When Johnson missed one of his five 3-point attempts, guard Gabe York said he could hear Johnson's brother in the background, "Go to the basket. See the ball going into the basket."

York had an idea. When T.J. McConnell dove to the ground to scoop up a loose ball and kicked it ahead to York, it was the first opportunity to get Johnson a basket.

"I don't know if he did it on purpose, but if he didn't, he gave me the easiest bucket of the night," Johnson said. "Seeing the ball go through the basket, that little finger roll, is what I needed to get me started."

Johnson scored only one more field goal. But that followed his finger roll and was arguably the biggest of the game. The Wildcats nursing a three-point lead, Johnson made a 3-pointer from about 25 feet out to take their biggest lead at that point in the game 59-53 with 1:52 left.

"When I talk about will and resolve and having a toughness about our team," Miller said, "it's the willingness to take the shot and then make it when things haven't gone your way the entire game. Especially in a game like this of such great meaning."

Arizona will probably need Johnson to score for more than a three-minute span against Wisconsin in order to advance to its first Final Four since 2001. But from seeing Johnson make the big shots to close out San Diego State, Hollis-Jefferson has no doubt he will.

"I was like, 'Oh, this is the Nick Johnson I know,'" Hollis-Jefferson said.

He's the guy who delivers on his promises. No matter how bleak it may seem.

C.L. Brown | email

College Basketball

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