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Rivalry gap: Arizona speeding away again from ASU

Nick Johnson thorouhgly enjoyed his first game against ASU. Photo by Pat Shannahan/The Arizona Republic

A two-hour basketball game between Arizona and Arizona State, followed by about 30 minutes of interviews, can be summed up like this:

“I’m just glad I’m on this side of it,” Wildcats freshman guard Nick Johnson said of the rivalry.

As you wake up in a new year, Arizona fans, aren’t you glad you’re on this side of it?

Not just because of UA’s 68-51 victory over the Sun Devils on Saturday night — the Cats’ third in a row in the series, all by double-digit margins — but, clearly, the gap is re-widening again after ASU made a run when Arizona was in the loooong transition from Lute Olson to Sean Miller.

Miller is now 4-1 against Herb Sendek, the man he assisted for five seasons at North Carolina State, and the arrival next season of the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class only figures to expand the distance between the programs.

“Just go out there and beat them,” UA forward Jesse Perry said of his mindset vs. Arizona State. “And not just beat them by one or two points, but try to make a statement.”

Arizona, at 10-4, is still very much a work in progress, with defense — and not the easy offense Derrick Williams provided last season — having to be its calling card this time around. That defensive intensity was there from the start against ASU, which committed 10 turnovers in the first 12 minutes.

The Sun Devils are 4-9 and likely will only be spared the Pac-12 basement by an epically horrific Utah team. Arizona led by as many as 24 in the second half on Saturday before tapping the brakes in the final six minutes.

As for Johnson, he scored 14 points in his first rivalry game against Arizona State, where his father, “Jumpin” Joey Johnson, played for two seasons.

“I’d like to say it was just another game, but my dad played at ASU and I was pretty emotional,” he said.

“I was excited. I woke up like at 5:30 this morning. I was tossing and turning all night.”

Johnson grew up in Gilbert, Ariz. — he was offered a scholarship to ASU after finishing middle school — and spent his final two seasons of high school ball at powerhouse Findlay Prep in Henderson, Nev.

Johnson — showing the springy legs that gave his father a reported 52-inch vertical leap — had a couple of major jams vs. ASU and slipped a fast-break pass down low to Perry for another slam.

Johnson also was 3 of 5 from 3-point range after going 2 of 15 from behind the arc in the previous five contests.

“It was great to see him make a few threes,” Miller said. “He’s been working hard on it.”

Johnson has been the best of Arizona’s freshmen, although point guard Josiah Turner has been making steady progress, especially since he was suspended and left at home for the game at Florida on Dec. 7.

Turner had five steals against Arizona State. He had a career-high five assists in the previous game. One of his two assists vs. the Sun Devils came on a superb fast-break alley-oop pass to Johnson.

When the night ended, Arizona had beaten ASU for the 28th time in the past 35 meetings. Or, as the Sun Devils would prefer to say, they have won six of the past 10.

That recent stretch included a 4-0 record against UA interim head coaches Kevin O’Neill and Russ Pennell, when the Devils had superstar guard James Harden.

“When you look at when they were successful, all you say is one player — James Harden,” said UA junior forward Solomon Hill. “Other than that, it’s really been heavily one-sided.”

ASU, which doesn’t have a senior on its roster, sorely misses freshman guard Jahii Carson, who is ineligible this season. The Devils will improve in 2012-13 when he is expected to join the roster … but so will the Wildcats, who have visions of national championship runs in their future.

And that is not a bad side to be on.

CREDIT: Arizona Athletics
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