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Arizona rediscovers defense in win over Arizona State

The SportsXchange

TUCSON, Ariz. -- The 18th-ranked Arizona Wildcats, who struggled with defense through a late-season slump, might have found their way again just in time for the postseason.

Arizona closed out the regular season with a 73-58 win over Arizona State at McKale Center on Saturday, forcing 17 turnovers and holding a plus-12 edge on the boards.

"We had gotten off the path with our defense," Arizona coach Sean Miller said.

"We had a really hard week of practice. I don't know if I have ever gone longer or harder in mid-March than we did this week. It wasn't coaching staff vs. the players; I think everybody just wanted to get back to becoming a good defensive team. Today, Arizona State earned their points. We played hard and collectively on defense."

Sophomore guard Nick Johnson led the offense, scoring a team-high 17 points, including seven in a row in a key second-half stretch.

Arizona (24-6, 12-6 Pac-12) merely split its final eight games of the regular season but ended in a three-way tie for second in the conference with Oregon and California. The Wildcats lose the tiebreakers against both schools and will be the fourth seed in the Pac-12 tournament that begins Wednesday in Las Vegas. The top four seeds get a bye in the first round.

Arizona State (20-11, 9-9) ended the regular season on a four-game losing streak. The Sun Devils lost seven of their last 10.

"If you go back to when we won some of those games, I don't know if we were an entirely different team," coach Herb Sendek said. "It's like a possession here and there. ... I think our play has been pretty consistent."

ASU trimmed a 15-point halftime deficit to 50-45 with 10:46 left on a layup by Chris Colvin. But Johnson scored the game's next seven points -- on a 3-pointer, two free throws and a layup -- to put the Wildcats back in control.

Arizona's lead never dipped into the single digits after that, and the Cats pushed the lead to 23 points with about two minutes to go.

It was Johnson's best scoring output since putting in 23 points vs. UCLA on Jan. 24. He also had three assists, three steals and no turnovers in 36 minutes.

"It was good," Johnson said, "but everything started with our team defense. This past week in practice was all about defense -- getting stops and getting out on the fast break."

Arizona forward Kevin Parrom added with a smile: "We had missed him out there. It was great to have him back tonight ... and hopefully he stays here."

Parrom had 13 points for Arizona, Solomon Hill added 12, and center Kaleb Tarczewski had nine points and a team-high eight rebounds.

Senior wing Carrick Felix led ASU with 22 points, but he didn't have enough help, especially after three players fouled out with more than four minutes to play. Jahii Carson scored 15 points. The rest of ASU managed just 21.

"Those guys have been terrific all season," Sendek said. "I thought today they laid it all on the line. I couldn't be more proud of them for their effort and, for that matter, all season."

ASU shot 46.5 percent from the field, but the turnovers and lack of second-chance points (only three) doomed them to a subpar offensive output.

Arizona ended the first half on a 7-0 run to take a 40-25 lead at the break. Jordin Mayes scored the final four points of the half, making a 3-pointer with 30 seconds left and converting one of his two free throws with 0.6 of a second remaining after making a steal. The score marked ASU's largest halftime deficit of the season.

The Wildcats took their first lead at 7-5 on Parrom's 3-pointer, which helped fuel a 10-0 spurt.

NOTES: Arizona honored its three scholarship seniors -- Hill, Parrom and Mark Lyons -- after the game, as well as two senior walk-ons: Max Wiepking and Quinton Crawford. ... Former Arizona post Jordan Hill, now with the Los Angeles Lakers, attended the game. He is expected to miss the rest of the NBA regular season because of a hip injury. ... Miller is 7-3 against Sendek; Miller coached under Sendek at Miami (Ohio) and North Carolina State. ... Three ASU starters fouled out; forward Jonathan Gilling (6:57 left), center Jordan Bachynski (6:35) and guard Chris Colvin (4:23). ... Bachynski had three blocked shots, tying him for second on the Pac-12 season list with 113. ASU's Mario Bennett set the record of 115 in the 1994-95 season.
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