Arizona finds Nick Johnson, drops ASU and heads to the postseason the right way

Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats took some punches but landed some powerful ones themselves to beat the ASU Sun Devils and secure a bye in the Pac-12 tournament.

Everything was washed away with one win.

It wasn't just beating ASU, but the Arizona Wildcats' 73-58 victory on Saturday was about securing a first-round bye in the Pac-12 tournament. It wasn't just finishing the regular season unlike last year, when Arizona State upset the Wildcats in Tempe, but it was about finding once-lost dynamic guard Nick Johnson and sending three seniors out of McKale Center with a win.

So the Wildcats found their offense, showed an emotional grit behind Johnson's defense, and head to the Pac-12 tournament as the No. 4 seed. Johnson had 17 points, three steals and three assists, his role of frustrating ASU point guard Jahii Carson being his biggest contribution. Carson finished with 15 points, six turnovers and shot 5-of-12 from the floor.

Arizona outmanned ASU from the jump, building a 40-25 lead at the half. But as it always is in the chippy Duel in the Desert, Arizona's punch was answered. The Sun Devils fell behind by 16 early in the second half, as Johnson threw down a fastbreak dunk while seemingly waiting for forward Carrick Felix -- who scored 22 points for ASU -- to catch him from behind.

Jawing happened. Johnson soon picked up half of a double-technical and Kaleb Tarczewski drew an offensive foul call while shoving ASU's Johnathan Gilling off his arms after a rebound. ASU capitalized with the sudden uneven rhythm of the game, and the Sun Devils came within 48-43 with 11 minutes to play.

The Wildcats only put up eight points through the first nine minutes of the half after a 40-point first half, but from there, it was Johnson again setting the tone. He scored seven straight and the Wildcats' aggressive attack wore on ASU in the form of foul trouble.

Three ASU starters would foul out, and Tarczewski made his presence known with nine points and eight rebounds.

Mark Lyons' senior day didn't look good in the box score as he went 2-of-10 from the floor and had three turnovers to no assists. But Lyons fouled out and left the game on a technical foul off a stare-down of Felix, a fitting sign that the adopted senior was engaged in the rivalry just as everyone else.

The Wildcats fixed all their issues that had plagued them through the rough patch of the conference schedule. The ball didn't stick, especially in Lyons' hands, and a dialed-in defense forced 17 turnovers leading to 21 points. Arizona beat ASU in fastbreak points (12-2) and second-chance points (12-3), a sure sign that their energy had been found.

It all came back to Johnson, whose aggressiveness in attacking the cup and engaged bodying up of Carson changed the dynamic of the game. Arizona had 10 steals as a team as seniors Solomon Hill and Kevin Parrom combined for five.

Parrom added 13 points and seven rebounds, his exit from the game perhaps his last. Hill had 12 points and five assists, his final dime of the no-look variety to Parrom on a fastbreak layup with the foul.

So here Arizona is, for the time being forgetting all their weaknesses and looking as if Johnson more than everyone else can change the complexion of a game where the Wildcats need it the most -- effort and defense. And here Arizona is with the conference tournament up next and their statement on Saturday as if to say, "We're ready."

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