As San Diego State's Chase Tapley curled around a screen and found a wide-open lane to the basket on the final possession of Tuesday night's Diamond Head Classic title game, Arizona appeared to need a Christmas miracle to preserve its undefeated record.
Fittingly it was the player Arizona fans are now calling 'Saint Nick' who delivered one.
Sophomore guard Nick Johnson trailed the play, exploded to the rim as Tapley went up for his layup and swatted it off the glass as the final seconds melted off the clock. The block thwarted San Diego State's upset bid and preserved a 68-67 victory for Arizona, which is now 12-0 for the first time since the 1987-88 Final Four season.
If Arizona wasn't already college basketball's clear-cut best team in the West prior to Tuesday night's game, the third-ranked Wildcats can certainly stake claim to that title now. They're one of five remaining unbeaten teams nationally, they had already defeated Florida and Miami and now they've ended San Diego State's streak of 11 straight wins against Pac-12 foes.
To avoid falling to the 17th-ranked Aztecs (11-2) for the third time in four years, Arizona had to rally from an eight-point deficit early in the second half and survive a wild final 10 minutes that featured 10 lead changes.
Arizona shot only 37.5 percent from the field and 5 of 20 from behind the arc, yet there were many heroes for the Wildcats.
Seniors Solomon Hill and Kevin Parrom scored 21 and 17 points respectively, Hill doing most of his damage in the post or off the dribble and Parrom sinking a trio of big 3-pointers. Mark Lyons missed much of the second half with four fouls, yet delivered when it mattered most, blowing by Jamaal Franklin, drawing a foul and draining the tying and go-ahead free throws with 13 seconds to go in the game. And Nick Johnson shook off a poor shooting night to play solid defense the whole night even before making the game-saving block.
For San Diego State, the narrow loss was heartbreaking yet encouraging.
On the one hand, the Aztecs narrowly fell short of their first win in program history over an opponent ranked in the top five. On the other hand, they were one basket away from an upset despite committing 11 first-half turnovers and getting only nine points from reigning Mountain West player of the year Jamaal Franklin.
Chase Tapley helped San Diego State match Arizona shot for shot, scoring a team-high 19 points including a pair of contested 3-pointers late in the second half. Franklin managed eight rebounds and six assists despite his quiet scoring night, while DeShawn Stephens, Skylar Spencer and J.J. O'Brien did a good job defending and rebounding against the taller, stronger Arizona front line.
All in all, there was plenty of reason for both Arizona and San Diego State to leave Honolulu optimistic about the rest of the season.
Arizona has emerged as a runaway favorite in a Pac-12 that is improved yet lacks another elite team besides the Wildcats. And San Diego State again looks like a leading contender in the formidable Mountain West, which could land as many as four or five NCAA bids this March.
Nobody, however, had more reason to smile than Johnson as he left the Stan Sheriff Center.
"Merry Christmas," he tweeted right after the game, and for Wildcats fans, thanks to him it was.
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