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Arizona pulls away from Colorado

The SportsXchange

LAS VEGAS -- Arizona guard Nick Johnson, the Pac-12 Player of the Year, has been trying to convince point guard T.J. McConnell to set him for dunks.

On Friday, it was easy to see why.

Johnson scored a team-high 16 points and had two alley-oop dunks as part of an Arizona highlight show as the fourth-ranked Wildcats pulled away from Colorado 63-43 in a Pac-12 tournament semifinal Friday night.

Johnson's first slam came in the first half off a transition alley-oop from forward Aaron Gordon, but his favorite was the second. Johnson worked the baseline, grabbed the pass from McConnell and finished with a reverse dunk.

"I told him before the play, 'I'm going back door,'" Johnson said.

"Coaches had called a play, and he has really been hesitant throughout the year to throw me lobs. I tell him, I don't have a 47-inch vert for nothing. Throw it. You need to trust me.

"Honestly, I didn't think he was going to throw it, but he threw it up there. My favorite dunk off a lob is a reverse. I just went to what I knew."

That play was the second-half tipping point for 30-3 Arizona, which will play in the championship game on Saturday afternoon at the MGM Grand Garden Arena against UCLA. The Wildcats are seeking their first Pac-12 tournament title since 2002.

Colorado (23-11) made just five shots in the second half. The Buffaloes await a likely NCAA Tournament at-large bid.

"I'm not going to be presumptuous and say we're in, because these guys weren't with us three years ago when our team didn't get in and deserved to get in," said Colorado coach Tad Boyle.

"I think we're in, but that's not for me to decide."

Arizona, which was brilliant defensively a day earlier vs. Utah, went into Cirque du Soleil mode in the second half against Colorado, firing up a pro-Arizona crowd.

After Johnson's dunk, forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson threw down a tomahawk slam and Gordon did it on defense with an at-the-summit block of forward Xavier Johnson on a one-handed dunk attempt.

"That was a big block," Hollis-Jefferson said. "It just seemed like Aaron kept going up and up and up to get the ball. Xavier Johnson was pretty high, too, but Aaron just elevated and exploded. I was just staring at him. It was an amazing block."

That was all part of a 15-3 run for Arizona, which included a falling-down reverse layup from guard Jordin Mayes that gave UA a 49-32 lead with 7:58 left. Not long after that, Hollis-Jefferson joined the highlight party again with a one-handed dunk off an in-bounds pass.

"We haven't played better basketball at any time this year than we did in the final 20 minutes today," said Arizona coach Sean Miller.

Hollis-Jefferson and point guard T.J. McConnell each scored 12 points for Arizona. Gordon had nine points and nine rebounds.

Colorado, which shot 35.5 percent in its previous two losses to Arizona this season, was even worse Friday. The Buffs hit only 29.4 percent (15 of 51).

Guard Askia Booker led Colorado with 12 points. Johnson added 11.

Arizona had a 41-25 rebounding edge.

"We just couldn't get a rebound," Booker said. "It's hard to get out in transition and get easy baskets when they're jumping over your backs and they're dunking the ball."

Arizona, which beat Utah 71-39 in the tournament quarterfinals, has allowed its two opponents to make just 27.6 percent of their shots (27 of 98). Johnson said the Wildcats are playing their best ball of the season.

"Offensive rebounding, defensive rebounding, getting stops ... you can us getting into transition more," he said. "That's one thing we've wanted to do -- call less plays, get into transition. That's where we're best."

Colorado hung tough in the first half, rallying from a 22-13 deficit to tie the game at 24. Arizona had the last shot of the half, working the ball to guard Gabe York, who hit a 3-pointer near the end of the clock to put the Cats up 27-24 at the break.

And then they ran away with it, posting multiple candidates for ESPN's Top 10 plays.

"Us getting stops leads to great offense," Hollis-Jefferson said. "And great offense makes us happy, and when we're happy we're at our best."

NOTES: This marked the third consecutive season in which Arizona and Colorado met in the Pac-12 tournament. The Buffs won in the 2012 title game, and the Wildcats took a quarterfinal matchup last year. ... The final four sessions of the Pac-12 tournament sold out at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, which seats nearly 13,000 for the event. ... Former Arizona coach Lute Olson attended the game, sitting in the second row across from the Wildcats bench. He spent some time talking to Bill Walton, whose son, Luke, a former Arizona player, was inducted in the Pac-12 Hall of Honor on Friday.
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