What Arizona learned in a Pac-12 Championship defeat to UCLA came in handy Thursday in the Sweet 16. Remember that Travis Wear dive for a loose ball that epitomized the Bruins' victory? On Thursday, in Arizona's 70-64 win against the San Diego State Aztecs, it was Wildcats point guard T.J. McConnell diving for a loose ball that turned the momentum in UA's favor for good.
Within moments of the Bruins falling to No. 1 seed Florida, Nick Johnson finally caught a break in what was about to be his worst game of the season.
After missing his first 10 shots of the game, a scoreless Johnson was no longer scoreless when 2:45 remained. The fastbreak layup came off SDSU's 10th turnover, when McConnell broke up a dribble hand-off, dove for the ball, and found Gabe York streaking the other way. York dumped off a pass to Johnson, who laid the ball in to give Arizona a 56-51 lead.
Johnson hit a three to break a 1-3-1 SDSU zone a few plays later, then hit all 10 free throw down the stretch as Arizona pulled away from the Aztecs. He finished with 15 points and a team-high eight rebounds.
With SDSU's length across their lineups, Johnson couldn't even make a huge difference on the defensive end by matching up with Xavier Thames, leaving the assignment to McConnell.
Josh Davis and the Aztecs smacked the Wildcats around on the glass early on. Arizona led Davis in rebounding 14-11 at half, but it trailed San Diego State 24-14 overall and trailed 32-28 after 20 minutes.
Take a pick at what could doom UA heading into a matchup where stingy defense was expected, and you got it. Johnson went 0-for-7 in the first half, and only T.J. McConnell's seven points came from anyone other than freshmen. Aaron Gordon scored 11 points and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson added seven, the duo scoring mostly off quick face-up moves at the high post that had them moving toward the hoop.
And for as mature and fearless as the freshman looked -- Elliott Pitts hit a three-pointer to boot -- the veterans looked stone-faced, McConnell aside.
Arizona trailed 40-32 five minutes into the second half before the freshmen started getting the momentum to swing. Hollis-Jefferson took a pass from McConnell for a dunk, and then Gordon's pick-and-roll defense caused a Thames turnover leading to a fastbreak alley-oop dunk.
Arizona finally got over the hump in the second-to-last of Miller's so-called four-minute wars. A McConnell lefty layup gave UA a 50-49 lead with seven minutes to play, and then perhaps the hardest-fought game of the Miller era was the Wildcats' to win.
The most consistent players of the game were the Arizona freshmen.
Aaron Gordon finished with 15 points, seven rebounds, two assists and two blocks. Hollis-Jefferson scored 15 and was the most aggressive Wildcat, getting to the foul stripe eight times.
The offense looked ragged throughout, but look at the final box score, and it was hard to say Arizona did much wrong. The Wildcats committed just seven turnovers, a key against a long SDSU team, and shot 48 percent to the Aztecs' 39 percent.
The Aztecs only recorded three assists, and the one-and-one offense by Thames, who scored 25 points, eventually couldn't keep pace with Gordon doing the most damage by attacking the point guard on pick-and-roll switches.
As it's needed to be, it was a complete team effort that led to Sean Miller displaying a rare show of emotion toward the end of the game.
McConnell's grit, diving on the floor, changed the game. Johnson's confidence down the stretch did too. Center Kaleb Tarczewski scored seven points, all in the second half, and hit a shot at the rim thanks to a Gordon dump-off than preceded Johnson's first score. And the freshmen forwards continued to show why they're the most talented future pros on the roster.
Wisconsin awaits after beating the Baylor Bears. The Badgers' similar defense and long-range shooting threaten to keep Sean Miller from the Final Four. But Arizona, in one of their ugliest games of the year, know how to keep games close. That's all they can ask for in the Elite Eight.