ANAHEIM, Calif. — On the moment that became an instant highlight, the lob was too high and a tad long. In other words, it was "exactly how I wanted it," according to Gabe York, who said the idea was to provide a better platform for Aaron Gordon to shine.
You probably saw the alley-oop, which came as No. 1 seed Arizona was mounting a second-half comeback en route to a 70-64 win over San Diego State. Gordon elevated, reached back a looooong way, and then threw down a fantastic finish on a fast break.
"I threw it that way on purpose," York insisted afterward, "so he could go and freak it."
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BOX SCORE: Wildcats 70, Aztecs 64
There was another pass, too, that wasn't as spectacular, but nearly perfect, and maybe even more important. With the Wildcats clinging to a lead late, T.J. McConnell came up with the steal, and then York had it, and there was Nick Johnson heading for the hoop. It was a simple pass, an easy layup – except that for Johnson on Thursday, absolutely nothing had come easy.
The junior guard, the Pac-12's player of the year, had missed all 10 shots he'd tried. Some had rimmed out. Others weren't close. None went in. Although he had somehow avoided freaking out, it was a big reason the Wildcats were in huge danger of being upset by the No. 4 seed Aztecs.
"I don't know if Gabe did it on purpose, but it was huge," said Johnson of the pass. "He gave me the easiest bucket of the night. Seeing the ball go in the basket on a little finger roll was what I needed to get me started."
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Johnson's late start – the layup came with 2:44 left, pushing Arizona up 56-51 – was just what the Wildcats needed to finish. He added a 3-pointer on the next possession, then hit 10 consecutive free throws in the final 91 seconds.
"My teammates were great, saying, 'It's your time,' " Johnson said. "And I delivered."
Arizona will face No. 2 seed Wisconsin on Saturday with a berth in the Final Four at stake because of what looks like, in the box score, just a typical night at the office. Gordon and Johnson each scored 15 points. Nothing new there. All season, it has been that way, the freshman forward and junior guard as the catalysts for the Wildcats. But how they did it – and what their production meant – is why the Wildcats survived what easily could have been the end of a very good run.
With Johnson struggling – afterward, he called the feeling frustrating, and likened it to performances in the Wildcats' four losses – Gordon played the way he has all season, a somewhat overlooked freshman phenom. Together with fellow freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who also scored 15 points before fouling out, he carried his older teammates.
"His poise as a freshman is through the roof," said York, a sophomore. "He plays basketball. He doesn't worry about how bright the lights are or how big the stage is. He just plays basketball."
Gordon's production was doubly important against the Aztecs' fierce, physical defense. He and Hollis-Jefferson had back-to-back dunks early in the second half, pivotal as Arizona clawed back from an eight-point deficit.
The second was the York-to-Gordon connection on the fast break. The crowd at the Honda Center appeared evenly divided between Arizona and San Diego State fans, but with that dunk, which trimmed the deficit to 40-38, the arena was such a bubbling cauldron of noise, Aztecs coach Steve Fisher called timeout.
"I could see everybody was up," Gordon said. "We just had a rejuvenation to us, and we kept going off of that."
From that point, the Wildcats gradually pulled even, then took over. And although the highlight will inevitably be of the alley-oop, the more subtle parts of Gordon's rapidly developing game were at least as important. He had 11 points in the first half, when San Diego State threatened to build a large lead.
And on one of the game's most important possessions – Arizona ahead by one with the clock ticking beneath four minutes – he twice kept the possession alive after missed 3-pointers, once with a rebound, then with a tip-out. Then, he drove the lane and fed center Kaleb Tarczewski for a layup and a 54-51 lead.
"He's so relentless on the glass," Hollis-Jefferson said. "To get that basket, it was pretty crucial."
More crucial was that Johnson finally got going. On the next possession, McConnell dove for a steal, then pushed it to York, who fed Johnson. The junior guard admitted later he felt he was letting down his teammates. After one bank shot from short range rolled around the rim, then fell out, he'd gone back down the floor shaking his head and smiling – but inside, he admitted, he was struggling, thinking: "Really?"
Then came York's perfect, very important delivery. Johnson scored. After the layup came the 3-pointer – a dagger that stretched the lead to six points – followed by all of those free throws, swish after swish after swish after swish, delivering the victory.
"When I hit one shot, it just started to feel a little bit better," he said. "I just kept on hitting shots."
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