Johnson finds touch, Arizona tops SDSU in game that seemed lost

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ANAHEIM, Calif. -- This is how an upset of a No. 1 seed happens ...

The All-America guard -- the leading scorer -- starts 0 for 10. For more than 37 minutes in a sweaty, rockin', rollin' Honda Center, Arizona guard Nick Johnson couldn't buy a basket against San Diego State in a West Regional semifinal. His just-inside-half-court 3 came just after the halftime clock expired.

There was a point in the second half when Johnson had one go halfway down and spin out.

It happens when the 7-foot bruiser -- the No. 2 rebounder, Kaleb Tarczewski -- gets his third foul with five minutes left first half. Then gets his fourth 68 seconds into the second half.

It happens when Pac-12 All-Freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson -- the Cats' No. 3 active rebounder -- fouls out with 4:42 left.

This is how the upset is avoided ...

The Pac-12 freshman of the year, Aaron Gordon, grabs an alley oop pass to incite the crowd with 14:42 left.

Tarczewski re-enters and plays the last 11½ minutes with those four fouls. Effectively.

Johnson knocks down his first basket with 2:45 left and scored all 15 of points within the final three minutes.

The Wildcats shoot 62 percent in the second half.

Arizona wins the game, if not the hearts of the entire Honda crowd, 70-64.

If it were only that simple. For the Wildcats, it was survive and tap dance -- all the way off the court into the Elite Eight.

The Final Four may be coach Sean Miller's destiny. We don't know yet. Wisconsin stands in the way in Saturday's West Regional final. The Wildcats are in that final for the second time in four years -- in this same building.

For awhile, there was some debate whether the building would remain standing. It was Ohio State-Michigan, Oklahoma-Texas squeezed inside an arena -- split pretty much evenly between the fans of the two rivals.

What did you expect from two of the top five defensive teams in the country?

"That was the most physical, hard-fought game of the season for us," Miller said. "The story was about us advancing. We overcame Nick not scoring, Kaleb in foul trouble. You don't get to that level without that toughness and resolve. That was the story of the game. We almost willed our way to the finish line."

Arizona digs deep to find a way against San Diego State. (USATSI)
Arizona digs deep to find a way against San Diego State. (USATSI)

The crowd of 17,173 witnessed a riddle, at least one any team will have to solve to beat the No. 1-seeded Wildcats. In the middle of one of the worst shooting games of his career, Johnson was Arizona's best rebounder with eight.

And when it counted, he knocked down a layup, a three and 10 free throws in the final 165 seconds.

"He just exploded in the second half, that's all I can say," said Aztec Dwayne Polee.

The biggest play of the game -- perhaps the season -- was T.J. McConnell's steal and pass to Gabe York than ended in Johnson's basket, a layup to make the score 56-51. There was breathing room. Just enough.

"I've had a few games like this," Johnson said. "They've all been our losses."

All of that and San Diego State's Xavier Thames may still have still been the best player on the floor. The Aztecs' guard put his team on his back, scoring 25 points. That gave him 78 points in three tournament games.

Actually, the game was tied 50 with 6½ minutes left when Johnson missed his 10th consecutive shot. That Arizona had survived that long without production from their leading scorer was enough.

With just under six minutes left, the Wildcats took their first lead since early in the first half. The game may have turned when Gordon threw down an alley-oop jam 5½ minutes into the second half.

San Diego State still led by two. But the tentative, misfiring Wildcats were gone.

"In the heat of the moment I can't even hear the crowd," Gordon said. "[But] everybody was up. We just had a rejuvenation to us."

They were calling it the biggest sporting event in San Diego State history. Ninety minutes from campus, against the No. 1 seed in its backyard. Arizona won at San Diego State by nine in November.

The hype for SDSU couldn't have been bigger. Steve Fisher, a 69-year-old coach with a national championship on his resume, was bidding for his second 15 years later in a completely remade career.

"Which makes this even harder," Fisher said at the end.

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