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March 9, 2013
As Arizona was bidding a final home farewell to its seniors, a sophomore re-introduced himself to the McKale Center crowd on Saturday.
Nick Johnson, who has gone through an inconsistent stretch in Pac-12 Conference play, led the 18th-ranked Wildcats to a 73-58 victory over rival Arizona State. The guard's team-high 17 points helped UA secure the No. 4 seed for next week's Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas.
Among the plays that sparked Johnson was a dunk ahead of a hot-on-his-heels Carrick Felix during a key second-half run. The stretch took a five-point lead back up to 12 and held off the Sun Devils (20-11, 9-9 Pac-12).
"That's always been something to get me going a little bit," said Johnson, who made 6 of 11 shots and added three assists.
Although it was his last home game, senior Solomon Hill was not ready to reflect on his career.
"It's not over," said Hill, who scored 12 points, dished out four assists and pulled down four rebounds. "It's Senior Night, I understand, playing in front of McKale. But I think we have a lot of basketball left."
Leading by 15 at the half, the Wildcats opened the second half with the same energy that helped them close the first 20 minutes strong. But things got sloppy in a hurry - and a bit chippy - in a whistle-heavy opening minutes.
After turning the ball over just three times in the first 20 minutes, the 'Cats had five in the second half before the midway point.
ASU chipped away with a 12-4 run, cutting the deficit to eight on Carson's layup with 13:22 to play. Jonathan Gilling then later pulled the Sun Devils within five on a 3-pointer.
But Johnson stopped the charge with seven consecutive points of his own, capped by a floater in the lane, to restore the double-digit lead. Hill punctuated the rally with a steal and thunderous two-hand dunk that led to a foul and three-point play, firmly swinging the momentum back to Arizona for a 62-48 lead with 7:23 remaining.
"Our margin of victory was more of a function, I think, of our defense," said UA head coach Sean Miller, who has been pleading for better results on that end for the past month.
Felix - who made just 1 of 8 shots in the first meeting between the teams - scored a game-high 22 points to pace ASU, which shot 46.5 percent from the field but committed 17 turnovers.
Star freshman Jahii Carson, who turned the ball over six times, was limited to 15 points on 5-of-12 shooting.
"Arizona is a very good defensive team," Sun Devils head coach Herb Sendek said. "Obviously, 17 (turnovers) is too many on the road today to come out with a win."
Before the Wildcats took the court, their slim hopes for a share of the Pac-12 title vanished. Needing both a UCLA and Oregon loss in addition to a win of its own, UA instead had the longshot dream killed during warm-ups as the Bruins pulled away late for a 61-54 win at Washington to claim the crown.
With Oregon's surprising 10-point loss at Utah less than half an hour later, the Bruins won the regular-season championship outright and will enter the Pac-12 tournament as the top seed. The loss dropped Oregon behind idle California, giving the Bears the second seed and the Ducks the third spot.
"There's a side of me that believes that we probably, deep down, didn't earn the right (to be in the mix for the title)," Miller said. "But that's OK. Sometimes the hungrier team is the team that doesn't quite achieve what they wanted to."
An early 8-0 run via a pair of 3-pointers and a fastbreak basket put Arizona up 12-5 within the first five minutes. But ASU quickly answered with seven consecutive points to tie the game at the 14:17 mark.
Chided for their lack of energy during a two-game sweep last week in Los Angeles, the Wildcats brought it early - particularly center Kaleb Tarczewski. The 7-footer made his first three shots for six points and grabbed three rebounds in the first 7 1/2 minutes of play.
Also involved early was Johnson, who was able to get out on the break and help UA pull ahead, 23-16, with under eight minutes left.
Tarczewski continued to be a presence on the boards, and his pair of offensive rebounds in one sequence led to a Hill 3-pointer to extend the advantage to 29-18 with 5:48 remaining.
"I told him right when Solomon made that 3, 'That was all you. We went on that run because of you,'" Johnson said of Tarczewski's hustle.
The Wildcats maintained a double-digit lead for most of the half and closed the half on a 7-0 run - the last four by revitalized reserve Jordin Mayes - to take a 40-25 edge into the locker room.