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December 25, 2012

'Air Zona' saves Christmas for No. 3 Wildcats



The sophomore appropriately dubbed "Air Zona" saved Christmas and an unbeaten record for third-ranked Arizona on Tuesday night.

Nick Johnson flew in for a game-saving block in the final seconds of the Wildcats' thrilling 68-67 win over No. 17 San Diego State in the championship game of the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu.

"It took two great plays on both offense and defense to secure the win," Wildcats head coach Sean Miller said. "And we made both of them."

The Wildcats (12-0) became the first Arizona team to win its first 12 games since the 1987-88 season - the same year the program appeared in its first-ever Final Four.

And this game had a March Madness feel after a slow start.

After a pair of Mark Lyons free throws gave the Wildcats the lead with 13.1 seconds to play, the Aztecs (11-2) set up what appeared to be a perfectly executed possession.

Chase Tapley dribbled from the top of the 3-point line to the basket without much resistance. But his potential game-winning layup was swatted away by Johnson with 3.5 seconds to play.

"He made one hell of a play," Tapley said. "I just have to tip my hat off to him. I didn't even know he was around. He just came out of nowhere. I'm thinking the game is over. The next thing you know, the ball is going off the backboard."

Added Johnson: "My instincts took over."

In the game's final 10:45, no team had a lead larger than two points. In that span there were nine ties and 10 lead changes.

With Lyons in foul trouble, fellow senior Solomon Hill stepped up to score a game-high 21 points and took home the tournament's most valuable player honor. Kevin Parrom added 17 off the bench for the Wildcats, who shot just 37.3 percent.

Tapley netted 19 in the loss, which snapped SDSU's 11-game winning streak.

"It hurts," SDSU head coach Steve Fisher said. "It's hard when you have a chance to win a championship, have a shot to beat an undefeated team, and you don't quite get it done, and you think you're going to do it right until the very last play of the game. It hurts badly."

Trailing by just two despite careless ball handling and a goose egg from its star, SDSU quickly knotted the game at 29 as Jamaal Franklin got on the scoreboard. That sparked a 14-4 run - including the first eight points - and, in the process, Lyons picked up his third foul with less than three minutes gone by in the second half.

In just four minutes, the Aztecs shifted the momentum and took a 41-33 lead on Xavier Thames' layup.

Lyons then picked up his fourth foul, but Arizona still managed to answer with a run of its own as a pair of Hill free throws put the team back in front, 51-50, with 10:16 remaining.

Both teams started the game tight, however, missing on 12 of the game's 13 attempts - including all seven from SDSU. In addition to a few missed dunks, the jump shots never had much of a chance, drawing nothing but glass in several cases.

But the Parrom eventually settled the Wildcats down with five quick points off the bench, engineering a seven-point lead by the midway point of the half.

Hill eventually got in on the action, pacing the team with 10 first-half points. But the 'Cats could never pull away despite 11 Aztecs turnovers and a scoreless first half from Franklin, the team's leading scorer.

A Dwayne Polee layup with 10:43 to play cut the deficit to 16-13, and the margin never grew larger than six the rest of the half.

UA did not convert a field goal over the final 4:36 and scored just three points in that span, as SDSU pulled to within 29-27 at the break.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Tracy McDannaldTracy McDannald
GOAZCATS.com Senior Editor

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