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ANAHEIM, Calif. -- For more than 37 minutes, Nick Johnson was scoreless. The All-American guard had missed his first 10 shots, never even got a whiff of the free-throw line.
But with just a four-point lead at the half, San Diego State head coach Steve Fisher was aware of the junior star's statistics and thin margin for error. Fisher knew the easiest of opportunities would be enough to finish off his team and waste an otherwise fantastic defensive effort.
"We're trying to say foul anybody but him," Fisher said.
Johnson scored 15 of top-seeded Arizona's last 16 points over the final 2:44 - including 10 free throws - and willed the Wildcats past the No. 4-seeded Aztecs, 70-64, in the NCAA West Regional semifinal Thursday night at Honda Center.
Leading 54-51, Wildcats point guard T.J. McConnell came up with an aggressive on-ball steal on a play intended for Aztecs star Xavier Thames. The heady junior pounced on the loose ball and passed it from his back to Gabe York, who then gift-wrapped Johnson's first two points to push the lead to five.
"I was pretty much denying Xavier Thames," McConnell said of the key moment. "Winston Shepard kind of handed him the ball and I stuck my hand in there. I saw it rolling and I dove on it, and I rolled over and saw Gabe, and Gabe made the great play by passing it back to Nick.
"I thought that was a very pivotal point in the game."
After a pair of free throws from J.J. O'Brien, Johnson then drilled a 3-pointer to extend the advantage to 59-53 with 1:52 left. From there, it was about calmly sinking the same clutch free throws that helped make the Wildcats battle-tested in early-season victories at Duke and Michigan.
The Pac-12 Conference player of the year credited his teammates for getting him going.
"[York], I guess, had the (awareness) to get me an easy bucket," said Johnson, who finished 2 of 12 from the field. "I got that layup, and then, Kaleb (Tarczewski) had a big pass to me, wide open at the 3-point line. I stepped in and shot the ball like I've been shooting it.
"But just trying to stay with it, guys gave me great confidence to keep on shooting the ball and just finish the game, and that's what I did."
Arizona (33-4) will play No. 2 seed Wisconsin (29-7), which shot 52 percent in a 69-52 win over No. 6 seed Baylor in the earlier regional semifinal. The Elite Eight match-up will be played Saturday at 5:49 p.m.
It will be the Wildcats' 10th appearance all-time in the regional final and first since 2011.
"We've played 37 games now. That was the most physical, hard-fought game of the season for us," said UA head coach Sean Miller, who will attempt to reach the Final Four for the first time in the third attempt of his career.
Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson matched Johnson's team-high 15 points. After a dismal first half, the Wildcats shot 61.9 percent after halftime and turned the ball over just seven times for the game to offset the Aztecs' 18 second-chance points.
SDSU (31-5), which led by as many as eight with less than 17 minutes to play, was paced by Thames' 25 points.
"You've just got to give credit to Arizona. They're one of the top defensive teams in the country," said Thames, who 9 of 22 from the floor. "We just fell short tonight."
The Aztecs owned a 37-29 edge in rebounds but shot just 38.9 percent - including 9 of 24 after halftime. Dwayne Polee, who did not appear in the Nov. 14 loss to Arizona in San Diego, added 13 points off the bench.
"I've never had a group in all my years that have been more willing to learn and be taught, which makes this even harder," said Fisher, who led SDSU to the Sweet 16 for the second time in program history despite being picked to finish fourth in the Mountain West.
In a game that featured nine ties and lead changes apiece, the Wildcats were outworked to loose balls for the majority of the night and battled foul trouble. But trailing 40-32, UA went on a 12-5 run to pull within a point on a York 3-pointer.
Included in the surge was what may have been the dunk of the tournament with 14:26 remaining. Off a York lob, Gordon stretched out to slam in a one-hand dunk. It was the highlight in another masterful night for the freshman, who finished with 15 points on 7-of-9 shooting to go with six rebounds.
"It was a good pass from Gabe. All you have to do is throw it up there and I went and got it," said Gordon, who is shooting 73.3 percent and averaging 6.7 boards through his first three NCAA tournament games.
"We just had a rejuvenation through us and we just kept going like that."
But Thames and SDSU delivered answer after answer, until finally there were no more. After pulling within a point on three occasions, McConnell's layup with 7:19 to play gave UA the 50-49 edge - its first lead since the 7:47 mark of the opening half.
McConnell finished with 11 points.
O'Brien split a pair of free throws 19 seconds later to tie the game at 50, but that was as close as it got for SDSU.
Among the backbreaking plays late was a Kaleb Tarczewski layup, making the score 54-51 after a pair of York misses - including an offensive rebound the foul-plagued center tipped to Gordon just before his basket.
"We are at our best when we do well on the glass," said Tarczewski, who played with four fouls from the 18:52 mark and managed to avoid getting disqualified.
"We've been in a lot of tough situations. They are a wonderful team and you have to give them tremendous credit on how hard they played. … Through the adversity of the game, we did a good job of sticking with it and keeping our confidence."
The electric atmosphere provided by the 17,773 fans in the building - roughly a 65-35 split in favor of SDSU fans - wasn't matched immediately by the play on the floor. The teams combined to make just three of their first 17 shots.
But Arizona weathered the early storm and SDSU's full-court press to hang close. Timely 3-pointers and an aggressive freshman duo of Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson kept Arizona within striking distance.
The forwards combined for all but 10 of the team's first-half points.
"We were just more focused and we played a lot more aggressively," Hollis-Jefferson said.
But the difference in the half was Polee, who had 10 first-half points off the bench and a block and steal that turned into points. The other factor was Josh Davis, who nearly outrebounded the Wildcats himself in the first 20 minutes and finished with six points and 14 rebounds.
SDSU outrebounded UA by 10 and pulled down 10 offensive boards. Davis, who grabbed just four rebounds in 33 minutes in the first meeting in November, was in double digits with less than four minutes to play in the half.
A Polee block on one end and his 3-pointer on the ensuing possession pushed the Aztecs' lead to 32-24. Defensively, at the top of a 1-3-1 zone, he also helped limit Johnson to 0-of-7 shooting.
"I talked at halftime about the fact he was 0 for 7 from the field," Fisher said of Johnson. "He's their best player. He's saying, 'I'm going to help you,' and we have to say, 'We're not going to let him go off on us' the way he has so often.
"He got 13 of his 15 points in the last three minutes. Good players do that."
Arizona produced a Gordon dunk in traffic and McConnell layup while SDSU turned the ball over on its last two possessions over the final 92 seconds of the half. A Johnson 3-pointer just inside half court at the buzzer was called off and UA trailed 32-28 going into the locker room.
That was despite a half that produced zeros for Johnson in points, McConnell in assists and Tarczewski in rebounds.
"It took tremendous toughness and resolve," Miller said. "We overcame Nick not scoring, Kaleb in foul trouble. The beginning of the game, giving up that many second shots.
"You don't get to this level without having that toughness and resolve that we have. That, to me, was the storyline of the game. Us, finding a way, being tough-minded and almost willing our way to the finish line."
Click Here to view this Link.Tracy McDannald
GOAZCATS.com Senior Editor