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The going gets tough, but Arizona survives in NCAA tournament

SportsSan Diego State AztecsArizona WildcatsNCAANCAA TournamentsCollege Basketball

Arizona and San Diego State did not meet in 2011 when the both schools advanced to the NCAA tournament's West Regional finals at Honda Center.

They met Thursday night — like a fist meets a face.

Maybe it was the underdog factor that produced so much ferocity in San Diego State's play, the upstart Mountain West Conference taking on a Pac-12 Conference powerhouse in a Pac-12 town.

Whatever it was, shots flew, elbows flew and sparks flew.

Top-seeded Arizona had to scrap for every point and possession to escape with a 70-64 win before a crowd of 17,773 at Honda Center in Anaheim.

Arizona (33-4) survived to meet Wisconsin on Saturday, with the winner advancing to next week's Final Four in Texas.

“We've played 37 games,” Arizona Coach Sean Miller said. “That was the most physically hard-fought game for us.”

Arizona played most of the game with center Kaleb Tarczewski in foul trouble and got little offensive contribution from guard Nick Johnson, the Pac-12 player of the year.

Johnson missed his first 11 shots and didn't score his first basket until 2 minutes 44 seconds were left in the game.

Incredibly, Johnson ended up scoring 15 of his team's last 16 points.

“He just exploded in the second half,” San Diego State forward Dwayne Polee II said of Johnson.

Actually, it was the end of the second half.

Johnson's first basket came on an easy layup after T.J. McConnell stole the ball from Winston Shepard. McConnell passed to teammate Gabe York, who found Johnson underneath.

It was a turning-point basket that put Arizona up by five points, 56-51, and it seemed to wake Johnson up.

He hit a key three-point shot about a minute later and then 10 free throws in the final 1:31 to seal the win.

“Good players do that,” San Diego State Coach Steve Fisher said of Johnson's endgame.”We tried to say foul anybody but him, but they found good ways to get him the ball.”

A boneheaded play with 19 seconds left by Arizona freshman star Aaron Gordon nearly gave San Diego State (31-5) a last chance. With Arizona up by six, Gordon fouled Aztecs star Xavier Thames while he was attempting a three-point shot.

Thames made all three shots to cut the lead to three. San Diego State then fouled Gabe York with 11 seconds left. York missed his first attempt but made his second. Thames missed a final three and Johnson, fittingly, hit two final free throws to seal the win.

“I was just trying to stay with it,” Johnson said. “These guys give me the confidence to keep shooting the ball and that's what I did.”

With the win, there's a chance Miller could meet his younger brother Archie, the coach at Dayton, in the national title game.

Archie technically advanced to the Elite Eight before Sean as the Flyers defeated Stanford in the South Regional semifinals just before Arizona and San Diego State tipped off.

“We watched the game in the locker room,” Sean Miller said. “We were all pulling for Dayton. Having two of us in the Elite Eight is a unique situation.”

Favorable proximity to Anaheim allowed Arizona and San Diego State fans to gas up their cars and turn Honda Center into a hothouse.

It was black and blue and red all over.

San Diego State set a serious tone early, with Thames smoothly running the point, forward Josh “Crash” Davis dominating the boards and Polee providing instant offense off the bench.

Davis, a senior transfer from Tulane who had 11 rebounds in the first half, has been called by Fisher the missing piece in this year's run to the round of 16.

Davis, from Raleigh, N.C., started his career at North Carolina State before transferring to Tulane.

He was a graduate transfer who didn't have to sit out a season and was hotly pursued by several top schools, including Ohio State.

Polee is also a transfer, from St. John's, but starred locally at Westchester High. He was Steve Lavin's first recruit at St. John's but left the school after his freshman year to be closer to his family.

He emerged as the Mountain West sixth man of the year.

Polee had 10 first half points, including a dramatic slam dunk off a steal, to help San Diego State to a four-point halftime lead.

Thames led San Diego State with 25 points, while Polee finished with 14. Davis ended up with 14 rebounds.

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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