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Arizona basketball: Nick Johnson sets defensive tone, O finds its way in win against Colorado

Nick Johnson scored 18 points but made the plays that didn't show up in the box as the Arizona Wildcats pulled out an impressive victory on Thursday to move to the Pac-12 Tournament semis.

Jeff Gross

LAS VEGAS -- Three-point takes. Three-point defense. Sean Miller's team will live and die by that theory; they always have.

The Arizona Wildcats dropped the always pesky Colorado Buffaloes -- for sure this time -- in a 79-69 victory Thursday at the MGM Grand while launching 27 threes and making nine. While the Colorado Buffaloes got to the line 28 times, making 20, the Wildcats finished with only 16 trips to the charity stripe. Six of those were in the final 30 seconds as the Buffs intentionally fouled.

The numbers games won out. Or maybe it was just the defense.

UA held the Buffs to 5-of-12 shooting from three-point range and 43 percent overall. Miller said they changed the ball-screen defense. Where some teams usually use a ball-screen then swing the ball back in the direction it came, CU usually kicks it across. The Wildcats adjusted with more aggression on ball screens, and the result was an offense that scored a bit but only recorded six total assists.

"We talked about it," CU coach Tad Boyle said. "We had two (assists) at halftime. When we're at our best, we're at double-digit assists. Six assists, 13 turnovers, you know, when we look at our losses, it's usually a result of … Our problem was not getting stops at critical times."

So much for the talk about Miller sometimes failing to adjust.

CU only took 12 threes and hit five. And it was deceiving that Arizona took so many long shots (many were actually pretty solid looks) but was the aggressor for the majority of the evening. Four Colorado players had two personal fouls in the first half.

Yet, key turnovers and bad bounces hurt the Wildcats; no surprise there. While coaches will often times fluff losses with generality, Miller's team simply make a mistake here -- Mark Lyons dribbling off his foot with 1:21 to play and only a 71-67 lead -- and another there.

But Lyons also scored seven points down the stretch, including what CU coach Tad Boyle called the "play of the game."

Go back a bit earlier. On an out-of-bounds ball that was apparently not kicked, one second remained on the shot-clock rather than 14 with UA imbounding. Kevin Parrom whipped a pass from halfcourt to the left corner, where the often-criticized point guard hit a turnaround three-pointer. Lyons finished off the Buffs with four important free-throw makes down the stretch.

Arizona led by 14 points with 12:27 left in the second half and appeared to be about to break the game open. Per usual in the Buffaloes matchups with Arizona, Colorado made a run.

As it was early on, Nick Johnson answered. He followed up a 6-0 CU run with a 13-foot or so jumper on the left wing, made a tough layup with the game cut to two points and with less than 35 second remaining, then on the return push up the court by CU drew an over-the-back foul on offensive rebounding machine Andre Roberson.

He also forced a very hyped Spencer Dinwiddie to go 4-of-12 from the floor. The lanky point guard still scored 18, as most of those points came from the foul stripe.

"Solomon on his rebounding and Nick defensively," Miller said, "I think did the best he could. That's a tough matchup for any guard."

Johnson finished up all that with a block on an Askia Booker three-point attempt with less than 20 seconds remaining.

Andre Roberson had 15 points and 11 boards. Hill's stat line didn't show it, but his intensity matched Roberson's and led to opportunity for Arizona, which faces UCLA at 6:06 p.m. MST Friday.

"I think in the second-half he had a stretch where he had two tip-jams," Hill said. "You have to hit him before he gets into the paint. Being able to hit those guys and get them off track before they get to the rim (is key). Every loose ball means everything in a game like that."

Hello bench

All the numbers between CU and UA were similar. The hustle stats, the rebounds, the second-chance points -- save for the ways the two teams scored, they went punch for punch. But what Arizona has been lacking all year long, a jolt off the bench, gave just that on Thursday.

Jordin Mayes and Brandon Ashley scored eight each, and Grant Jerrett added seven points, six boards and four blocks.

"Jordin gave us a spark," Miller said. "Jordin's confidence really came back around, in LA. That was one of the few bright spots (then).

"By the way," Miller added. "Jordin's one of our best perimeter defenders."