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There’s a Nick Johnson sighting as Arizona subdues Arizona State

Nick Johnson

Nick Johnson celebrates after making a second-half basket against Arizona State. Photo by Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Arizona Wildcats sophomore guard Nick Johnson hasn’t missed a game in two years. Perhaps it just seems like it.

The Nick Johnson of November, December and early January re-appeared for Arizona just in time for the Cats to bring down the curtain on the regular season, as they eventually ran away from Arizona State for a 73-58 victory at McKale Center.

Johnson scored a team-high 17 points — including a one-man 7-0 run that squashed the Devils’ second-half charge — and otherwise stuffed the box score and the highlight reel in all the right ways.

Three steals. Three assists. No turnovers in 36 minutes. A huge one-handed dunk over Carrick Felix.

Senior forward Kevin Parrom smiled at the postgame interview table and said slyly, “It was good to have him back and hopefully he stays here.”

It hasn’t been easy to peg anything about these Wildcats, so up and down in the conference season, managing only to split their past eight games, but a rejuvenated Johnson would be huge as the postseason begins at the Pac-12 tournament next week.

He had scored in double figures in just two of the past nine games. The 17 points marked his best output since he has 23 vs. UCLA on Jan. 24. His reputation as a lock-down perimeter defender had soured, too.

“If he’s not energized defensively or playing with confidence on offense, we’re not nearly as good as team,” coach Sean Miller said.

“It’s not just his responsibility to play good; it’s everyone’s. But today he was a big reason why we were able to win. He came out there today and just played the game. Had fun, played hard, was himself. And that’s when he’s the best player he can be.”

Arizona State wing Jonathan Gilling, who managed a mere three points on 1-of-4 shooting, called Johnson “strong, quick and aggressive” on defense.

“And annoying,” Gilling added.

That’s the Johnson that was probably the Wildcats’ MVP through a 12-0 non-conference season that took them to No. 3 in the polls.

Johnson is one big piece to the Wildcats having a successful March. He knows what the biggest one is — and Arizona showed that it might have sifted through the late-season nonsense and found that missing ingredient, too.

“I feel good,” Johnson said.

“But everything started with our team defense. This past week in practice was all about defense — getting stops and getting out on the fast break.”

Arizona State did shoot 46.5 percent, higher than Miller would like to see from an opponent, but that number didn’t reflect the true nature of the game. Arizona forced 17 turnovers and dominated the boards, finishing with a 35-23 edge.

The Devils had only three second-chance points. To use the words of Parrom from another season and another game against ASU: “No easy baskets.”

That energy on defense was no accident.

“We had a really hard week of practice,” Miller said.

“I don’t know if I have ever gone longer or harder in mid-March than we did this week. It wasn’t coaching staff vs. the players; I think everybody just wanted to get back to becoming a good defensive team.

“Today, Arizona State earned their points. We played hard and collectively on defense. We’re just a much better team and much more difficult to beat when we’re locked in and playing hard on defense.”

Johnson and the defense showed up when the game was at its tightest in the second half. Arizona’s 15-point halftime lead was down to five, at 50-45, with 10:46 to go.

Johnson scored the next seven points of the game — a 3-pointer, two free throws and a layup — in a span of 80 seconds. And that was that. The Devils were done.

In that 80-second span, Johnson had more points than Arizona State would score in a nearly nine-minute stretch that extended past when the Cats took their largest lead of the game at 73-50 with 2:11 to play.

Johnson slumped down the stretch last season. Arizona can only hope he’s working toward a peak.

The guy who is averaging 11.6 points, 3.6 rebounds, a team-high 3.1 assists … with all that high-energy athleticism? That’s who Arizona needs.

“He’s one of the best defenders on our team, if not the best defender,” Parrom said.

“I think he needs to continue that for us to go deep in the Pac-12 tournament and the NCAA Tournament. … I want to get to the Final Four.”

Related: Cats off to Pac-12 tournament as the No. 4 seed

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