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Survivors: No. 1 Arizona Wildcats stay cool in winning thriller at UCLA

Nick Johnson scored a game-high 22 points and played his usual standout defense. Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Nick Johnson scored a game-high 22 points and played his usual standout defense. Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats called timeout after UCLA tied the game at 68. There was 2:14 left. The Bruins were on a 13-0 run. Pauley Pavilion was rockin’.

The No. 1 team in the nation shrugged.

“We looked at each and said, ‘We’ve been in this situation before. In the last three or four minutes of a game, we’ve done this,’” assistant coach Joe Pasternack said on the 1290-AM (KCUB) postgame show. “They just really hung together.”

Just like they hung together at Michigan. And at San Diego State. Against Duke in Madison Square Garden. In home games against UNLV and Washington.

The No Panic Gang did it again Thursday night in Los Angeles, adding to the most impressive resume in college basketball.

Top-ranked Arizona, which saw a 13-point second-half lead go up in smoke and even trailed 70-69 with 1:44 left, calmly, methodically, efficiently — eventually — subdued the Bruins to win 79-75, remaining undefeated and unbowed in crunch time.

“We have such an unselfish team,” Pasternack said.

“Most importantly, our team prides itself on its defense and rebounding. At the end of the game, with four minutes to go, you have to get stops. … Every time you get a stop and a rebound, it’s a backbreaker for the other team. I think our defense and our rebounding is the difference in the last three or four minutes of a game.”

The serenity of the team starts with the trust everyone has in junior point guard T.J. McConnell, who had eight points, seven rebounds and seven assists. That’s just one part of the puzzle.

Nick Johnson (game-high 22 points) has become the undisputed leader, getting it done on both ends of the floor. And it’s s the way freshmen Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson play defense and don’t have out-sized egos.

On Thursday night, it’s Kaleb Tarczewski letting the game come to him, making 6 of 6 shots and scoring a career-high 16 points. It’s Gabe York coming off the bench to hit three 3-pointers in the first half and two huge free throws with 12.7 seconds left for the game’s final points.

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson scores in the first half. Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson scores in the first half. Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

“We have a chemistry about us,” coach Sean Miller said afterward on ESPN.

“It’s from the young players who weren’t here a year ago, and it’s also from the returners who played a big role on last year’s team. We don’t break. It’s not that it’s always pretty, but I think we have a resilience and a togetherness that when things really start going the wrong way allows us to fight back.”

Arizona hasn’t played close to a perfect game yet, and Miller couldn’t be pleased with his team’s 17 turnovers or that it merely out-rebounded the smaller Bruins by one. But when the clock ticked below four minutes left in the game, the Wildcats followed the script. That’s Arizona time.

– At San Diego State, Arizona led 62-58 with 1:52 to go. The Cats won 69-60.

– At Michigan, the Wolverines led 60-58 with 3:26 to go. Arizona won 72-70.

– Arizona led Duke by five with 1:46 to go and won 72-66.

– UNLV was up 57-56 with 3:31 left; the Wildcats won 63-58.

– Arizona led Washington 60-56 at the 3:56 mark and won by nine.

And then there was the UCLA game.

Nothing Arizona hasn’t seen before.

“Tonight, although it’s not easy, you’re more equipped to deal with it, for sure,” Miller said.

Arizona is equipped to play defense for 40 minutes, and the Cats held UCLA — the nation’s second-best shooting at 52.7 percent — to 40 percent shooting, which tied for the Bruins’ second-worst performance of the season.

“All week long, we really worked on transition defense,” Pasternack said.

“Everything we did, ad nauseam, was getting back on defense, not giving them easy baskets. That’s what they do great. And that’s why they average so many points and average such a high percentage. I thought we have them have to execute in the half court, and that was the difference in the game.”

Arizona rotated McConnell, Gordon, Brandon Ashley, Johnson and Hollis-Jefferson on versatile 6-9 point guard Kyle Anderson. He got his numbers — 16 points, 11 rebounds, six assists — but was just 6 of 15 from the field and traveled on a key possession while closely guard by Gordon with 40.1 seconds left.

Johnson mostly hounded Jordan Adams, who was 4 of 15 en route to 12 points.

“He was tremendous on the defensive side, and then obviously, he had a huge game offensively,” Pasternack said. “We couldn’t have won this game without Nick. He’s the heart and soul of this team.”

That’s one thing the national media is learning as Arizona spends more time in the college basketball sunshine. The Cats can’t be ignored. With a win at USC on Sunday, they will be No. 1 in the polls Monday morning for the sixth week in a row, tying the longest stretch in school history.

“We don’t really deal with the egos or sometimes the selfishness that teams with great individual players can bring to the table,” Miller told reporters after the game.

“For us, it’s been a real seamless team to coach because we work hard as a group and care about each other. You can kind of see that in these kind of situations. They really do stick together.”

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T.J. McConnell’s halfcourt lob pass to Aaron Gordon for the dunk was SportsCenter’s top play of the day:

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