Nick Johnson arrives just in time for Arizona
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?
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.
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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.
The Latest Dish
For the first time in 30 years, Dayton is headed to the Elite Eight. The Flyers did it without much trouble, too, coasting on past another team from a major conference.
First, Dayton dropped Ohio State, ousting a Big Ten team. Then it downed Syracuse, waving goodbye to one of the ACC's entrants. And on Thursday night in Memphis, Dayton bounced Stanford, tossing a Pac-12 school overboard.
Happenings In Anaheim
Deciding factor: At this point in the season, it should come as no surprise that Arizona's defense made the difference. Just as they did in their Nov. 14 meeting, the Wildcats held San Diego State to less than 40 percent shooting.
Player of the game: Arizona's Nick Johnson. The junior guard was scoreless until the game's final three minutes when he hit a layup, a 3-pointer and converted all 10 free throw attempts to end up with 15 points.
Key stat: Arizona showed its size advantage late in the game, outscoring the Aztecs 20-10 in the paint in the second half.
Deciding factor: Wisconsin's defense. Talk leading up to the game centered around Baylor's length and the Bears' zone, but the Badgers held Baylor to 31 percent shooting from the field and allowed it to convert just 2 of 15 from 3-point range.
Player of the game: Frank Kaminsky got it done on both ends. He led the Badgers in scoring with 19 points and blocked six shots.
Key stat: Wisconsin converted 53.6 percent of its shots against Baylor's zone, the same defense that held Creighton and Nebraska to 37.4 percent shooting.
Happenings In Memphis
Deciding factor: Florida's complete team play. Scottie Wilbekin didn't get going until late in the game, but his teammates were there to carry the load. The Gators had four players score in double figures
Player of the game: Florida's Michael Frazier II. The sophomore guard caught fire from outside, making five of eight 3-pointers on his way to leading the Gators with 19 points.
Key stat: Florida controlled the tempo in the latter part of the game. UCLA had 23 transition points in the first 30 minutes but was held scoreless on the break in the final 10 minutes.
Deciding factor: Dayton's transition game. As they've done all season, the Flyers got out on the break and outscored Stanford by 15 on fast-break points.
Player of the game: Jordan Sibert. The junior guard -- Dayton's leading scorer -- scored 18 points on 7-of-12 shooting, including four 3-pointers.
Key stat: Bench production. Dayton's bench outscored Stanford's by a count of 34-2. The Flyers' bench also scored 16 points in the paint while the Cardinal's bench was scoreless down low.