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Arizona Wildcats win easily, stay on collision course with Duke in NYC

Nick Johnson might have played his best game at Arizona. Photo by Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Nick Johnson might have played his best game at Arizona. Photo by Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Frank Sinatra’s version of the theme from “New York, New York,” escorted the Arizona Wildcats off the court Tuesday night, phase one of their season complete.

Five games in 12 days. Five victories. Ticket punched to Madison Square Garden in New York City for next week’s final four of the NIT Season Tip-Off, the road leading to a potential championship matchup against Duke.

“This is big,” said guard Nick Johnson, whose first career double-double highlighted an 87-59 victory over Rhode Island.

“Who wouldn’t want to play in MSG? It’s the biggest stage in basketball, period. We knew that coming into the season, tried to take it one game at a time and advance, and we did that.”

Arizona will have a little breather before playing Drexel on Wednesday, with the title game looming on Friday night vs. the winner of Duke-Alabama.

The Wildcats have looked every bit deserving of their No. 5 ranking in the AP poll — long, athletic, unselfish, defensive hounds who live for transition offense and alley-oop dunks.

“We were kind of shell-shocked,” said Rhode Island coach Dan Hurley, a former Seton Hall guard who comes from one of the nation’s prominent basketball families.

“They’re very good at both ends of the floor. They contest everything from the 3-point line and at the basket. I imagine that’s as close to playing an NBA team in terms of personnel and ability. That’s as good a college basketball team as I’ve seen in person.”

Foremost among the Cats’ carousel of highlights was Johnson’s alley-oop pass to Aaron Gordon for a reverse dunk late in the first half.

Another great play: Gordon spiking a URI shot attempt, getting to the ball to Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who spin-dribbles away from a defender along the sideline near midcourt, pushes ahead to the middle and dishes to a wide-open Gabe York behind the 3-point line. Swish.

Arizona just keeps coming in waves. Three of T.J. McConnell’s five assists led to dunks. Not many teams can have a 6-8 guy (Brandon Ashley) and a 6-9 guy (Gordon) lead a fast-break on back-to-back possessions.

Johnson’s final bucket in his 20-point, 10-rebound, six-assist effort was a one-handed jam after he took a pass from McConnell, kicking out from the lane.

“This may have been the best game Nick Johnson has had at Arizona,” Miller said.

“Nick is becoming a complete player. He has always been very talented. Each year he has been at Arizona, he has improved.

“His freshman year, he was solid. His sophomore year, he was better. And I said this all preseason, I look at him as becoming an all-conference player. He reminds me a lot of track Solomon Hill was on, each year adding to what he already did well.

“He is one of our natural leaders. He does it on both ends. He’s a special player. I don’t believe he takes a back seat to many guards that play this game right now in college basketball.”

The result from Tuesday night was right where Miller likes it. As he said, “the point differential speaks for itself,” but the game was not without proper teaching moments.

Miller had reason to take his team to task over two issues:

1. A slow start in which Arizona had 10 points in the first nine minutes.

“We weren’t a cohesive unit,” Miller said. “I wouldn’t call it selfish as much as we had a few ‘my turn’ kind of shots, when ‘I didn’t get one last time, so let me take one this time.’ That never works out. Never. It’s a disaster waiting to happen.”

2. A defensive snooze after taking a 30-point lead with 13:55 to go. The Rams trimmed the advantage to 63-44 over about the next five minutes.

“I’ve seen that before,” Miller said.

“What happens is, when you turn it on and turn it off, it doesn’t always turn back on again. … When we’re playing in a conference game, or another game in the next couple of weeks, and we’re up 10 and do that defensively, the game is tied up.”

Everybody knew the Wildcats should easily win the first two games of the Tip-off event, and they did, including a 100-50 put-down of Fairleigh Dickinson on Monday night.

“As older guys, we embrace that,” Johnson said of needing to win big to fulfill expectations.

“As of the rankings, we are a Top 5 team. And what Top 5 teams do, they come up, they win big. They do what they’re supposed to do.”

So far, so good.

Next week, we’ll find out if Arizona can be king of the hill.

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