The Arizona Wildcats have a signature win and a signature moment.
Sean Miller’s team never trailed and led by 14 with less than nine minutes left, but it had to battle foul trouble and a resilient San Diego State team down the stretch Thursday night.
The Aztecs whittled the lead to four, and then Arizona’s Nick Johnson fired up an air-ball 3-pointer. Fortunately for the Cats, SDSU deflected the ball out of bounds with 1:22 left.
What happened next had nothing to do with luck.
Point guard T.J. McConnell had the in-bounds pass from the baseline, and the Wildcats ran Johnson into the lane for a potential alley-oop. Wasn’t open. Then came Aaron Gordon, trailing Johnson. McConnell passed, Gordon soared, and with Dakarai Allen’s arm in his face, threw the ball through the hoop.
Arizona went on to beat San Diego State 69-60, a big early-season road victory that will still shine when the NCAA Tournament selection committee meets in March to sort out seeds and locations.
As for the in-bounds play …
“That’s a play we run,” Miller told reporters after the game. “Especially with Aaron’s talent, we knew he will go up and get it, and he did.”
That will be an enduring season-long highlight, just like Johnson’s last-second block of a Chase Tapley layup preserved last season’s win over the Aztecs.
Johnson was huge again vs. San Diego State, tying his career high with 23 points — 13 of which came after halftime.
He had a key stretch in the second half after San Diego State had cut the lead to 46-38. Johnson drew a charge, hit a jumper on the other end, then split two defenders for a driving layup on UA’s next possession. Not a bad one minute of game time.
“I thought Nick played like the poised upperclassman that he is,” Miller said on his 1290-AM (KCUB) postgame interview. “He made big free throws. I thought he made some of the biggest plays of the game.”
Gordon — who hit his first five shots from the field — finished with 16 points and eight rebounds, the only other Wildcat with double-digit points.
“Aaron Gordon is a good player,” San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said in his postgame interview.
“I knew that, you knew that. The whole world knew that. He doesn’t play like a freshman. They’re a very good team.
“I think the guy that stabilized them tonight was Nick Johnson. He did things that your leader does. He’s a three-year starter. He’s a terrific player and when they needed a play, he made it down the home stretch. Whether it be his free throws or drive to the rim, he was good.”
With Miller essentially going with a seven-man rotation (the eighth player, Jordin Mayes, was in for only five minutes), other Wildcats had key moments, too.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson had seven points and four rebounds in 12 first-half minutes off the bench. McConnell was his usual calm self, with six assists and two turnovers against a steady full-court press. Arizona committed a mere three second-half turnovers, which “is a big reason why we won the game,” Miller said.
And 7-footer Kaleb Tarczewski played a career-high 35 minutes. His main stats were modest — six points, six rebounds — but he also had three assists, two blocks and one shut-down defensive effort. Miller singled out Tarczewski’s defense on Josh Davis in the second half. Davis, the talented graduate transfer from Tulane, scored two points on 1-of-7 shooting.
“From a defensive perspective, his size doesn’t necessarily show up on the stat sheet,” Miller said of Tarczewski, “but I thought he had a real impact around the basket tonight.”
Arizona’s defense and rebounding — which should be season-long strengths — were evident as well. The Wildcats held a 39-28 rebounding edge and limited SDSU to 36.0 percent shooting. Through three games, UA’s opponents are making just 32.9 percent of their shots from the field.
On the negative side, Arizona committed 24 fouls, with Hollis-Jefferson fouling out after 18 minutes. The game ended with Johnson, Gordon, Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley with four fouls each.
“We obviously fouled,” Miller said.
“We have to take a look at it, correct it and make sure that we’re not doing something that puts us at risk. It’s hard when you’re in dire straits foul trouble like we were throughout the game.
“But I give our team credit. To go on the road and get a victory tonight was big for us.”