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March 9, 2012

Wildcats advance to Pac-12 title game

LOS ANGELES - Arizona freshman Nick Johnson has struggled to contribute for much of the second half of the season. Leading up to the Pac-12 Conference tournament, head coach Sean Miller said that Johnson would have to step up if the Wildcats wanted to compete for the league's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

Message received, and now UA is within a victory of securing a trip to the Big Dance.

The first-year guard was aggressive Friday night, igniting a key run to open the second half, and the fourth-seeded Wildcats never looked back in a 72-61 win over No. 9 Oregon State in the Pac-12 semifinals at the Staples Center.

The 'Cats (23-10) will face No. 6 Colorado, which defeated No. 2 California, 70-59, in the other semifinal contest. Saturday's championship game is scheduled to tip off at 3 p.m.

"We're just trying to get to the (NCAA) tournament," Johnson said. "That's what I've been dreaming of and we've got one game left."

Trailing by seven at halftime, the Wildcats received a huge lift from Johnson in the first five minutes of the second half. The guard scored or assisted on the first 14 points of a 20-3 run to give UA a 47-37 lead with 11:56 remaining.

In one sequence during the spurt, Brendon Lavender tied the score at 36 with a 3-pointer, Angelo Chol came up with a block on the other end and Johnson's layup put the 'Cats ahead. A Kyle Fogg 3-pointer on UA's next possession forced an OSU timeout.

"Today, to me, was one of the best games he's played at Arizona," Miller said of Johnson, who finished with nine points and handed out five assists. "He's had bigger games scoring, but he did so many valuable things, and he's getting better on defense."

And it was from beyond the arc where the Wildcats continued to torch the Beavers, connecting on 50 percent (9 of 18) including 4 of 6 in the second half.

"Our defense set the tone for those transition opportunities," Miller said.

UA pushed the lead to as many as 14 on Fogg's jump shot with 6:39 to play, and OSU would pull to within no closer than nine points the rest of the way.

"I thought we ran out of gas," Beavers head coach Craig Robinson said.

Fogg scored a game-high 22 points on 6-of-12 shooting for the Wildcats, who shot 60.9 percent (14 of 23) after halftime and finished at 47.1 percent (24 of 51) for the game.

Jesse Perry added a double-double with 16 points and 11 rebounds, and Solomon Hill chipped in 12 points before fouling out.

"I think just, especially with guys like me and Jess just being older, this is our last go-around," Fogg said. "We just want to win as many games as we can and kind of take this journey as far as we can go."

Sophomore reserve Roberto Nelson scored a team-high 19 points for the Beavers (19-14), who converted just 37.7 percent (23 of 61) from the field. Devon Collier (15 points) and Jared Cunningham (14 points) also finished in double figures.

"We wanted to play tomorrow," Nelson said. "I mean, we kind of let it get ahead of ourselves."

Cunningham, the conference's leading scorer, did most of his damage in the first half but missed 7 of 8 shots after halftime.

Despite a slow four minutes to start, UA eventually jumped out to a 10-2 lead and found the shooting touch that was missing the previous day against UCLA.

But the Beavers chipped away and Cunningham's 3-point play with 5:09 left in the half put OSU ahead, 25-23. From there, the 'Cats could not get back into an offensive rhythm until a Fogg 3-pointer ended a 6 1/2-minute drought without a field goal.

The Beavers, who shot 50 percent in the half, led by as many as eight points and took a 34-27 lead into the break.

Tracy McDannaldTracy McDannald
GOAZCATS.com Senior Editor

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