Nick Johnson couldn’t make a shot for the first 37 minutes of Arizona’s nail-biting West Regional semifinal against San Diego State.
The Wildcats survived because Johnson couldn’t miss a free throw when it mattered most.
The Pac-12 player of the year scored all 15 of his points in the final 2:44, carrying top-seeded Arizona through the tense final minutes of a 70-64 victory over the Aztecs on Thursday night.
The Wildcats (33-4) advanced to face second-seeded Wisconsin (29-7), which routed Baylor 69-52 with a fraction of the struggle.
Arizona and the Badgers both ended up in the same place: One win away from their coaches’ first trips to the Final Four. Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan has never been there in a 700-win coaching career, while Sean Miller is in a regional final for the third time in his much shorter career.
Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson also scored 15 points apiece for the Wildcats, who rallied from a second-half deficit and gutted out a win in a raucous Honda Center packed with fans of both West Coast powers.
Johnson struggled with his shot all night, missing his first 10 field goal attempts. But he made his final two shots before going 10 for 10 at the line in the final 91 seconds, keeping the Wildcats on track for their second win over the Aztecs (31-5) this season.
“I’ve had a few games like this this year,” said Johnson, the Wildcats’ top scorer this season with 16.3 points per game. “It’s unfortunately been our losses, so I just try to stay with it. … When I hit one shot, it just started to feel a little bit better. I just kept on hitting shots.”
Johnson finally scored on an electric sequence that had Arizona’s fans on their feet, making a fast-break layup after a steal by T.J. McConnell. The bucket gave the Wildcats a five-point lead, and Johnson added a 3-pointer on Arizona’s next possession with 1:52 to play.
Arizona couldn’t relax at any point, but that tension might serve the Wildcats well when they go after the win that would send them to Arlington, Texas, next weekend.
“We’ve played 37 games now, (and) that was the most physical, hard-fought game of the season for us,” Miller said. “That wasn’t a surprise to us, but the story is about us advancing. It took tremendous toughness and resolve. I felt like we overcame Nick not scoring.”
Xavier Thames scored 25 points and Dwayne Polee added 13 points for the Aztecs, who fell agonizingly short of a breakthrough win for coach Steve Fisher’s program. Although the Aztecs lost in the Sweet 16 for the second time in four years, Fisher is confident his Aztecs are gaining momentum.
“I do think that now we have a perception of the program nationally – `Hey, they’re good,'” Fisher said. “`They’re supposed to be good.’ I like that. Our players like that. I think a good pressure of expectations is now on our program.”
A few hours earlier in the Anaheim Ducks’ home arena, Wisconsin rolled over the sixth-seeded Bears (26-12) to reach the second regional final in Ryan’s 13 years at Wisconsin.
Frank Kaminsky scored 19 points and blocked six shots in a dominant game on both ends, while Ben Brust hit three 3-pointers and scored 14 points as the Badgers jumped to a 14-point lead in the first half and never relented.
The Badgers haven’t been to the Final Four since retired coach Dick Bennett got them there in 2000, but Ryan put them on the brink again with a game plan that countered everything the Bears do well.
The 7-foot Kaminsky and his teammates wrecked the zone that served Baylor so well in the first two games of the tournament. Wisconsin also negated the Bears’ 3-point shooting acumen with perimeter defense, kept the tempo at the Badgers’ preferred speed and even held a 39-33 rebounding edge on Baylor, one of the nation’s top rebounding teams.
“Wisconsin really played a great game, and we did a very poor job in making things tough,” said Baylor coach Scott Drew, who led his team to a strong finish after its 2-8 start to Big 12 play. “They’re extremely hard to pressure and rattle. … Once we got behind, we had to do some things we wished we didn’t have to do.”
Ryan put on a bit of a coaching clinic, but that’s nothing new. The Wisconsin folk hero has led the Badgers to an NCAA tournament berth in each of his 13 seasons, but only got this close to the Final Four in 2005.
“We get 40 more minutes, and I’m awfully proud of them,” Ryan said.