Momentum plays spark Cats to title tilt against Bruins

By Anthony Gimino
Special to Tucson News Now

LAS VEGAS -- A one-handed alley-oop dunk in transition. A tomahawk throw-down. A reverse dunk off a lob. A meet-you-at-top blocked shot. A one-handed jam off an in-bounds pass.

All these pulse-quickening moments are available at highlight videos near you as the Arizona Wildcats went all Cirque du Soleil on Colorado with a high-flying 63-43 victory Friday night.

"Those dunks were ridiculous," said guard Gabe York.

What's also ridiculous are the amount of storylines that all lead to an increasing world of possibilities awaiting fourth-ranked Arizona in the one-and-done world of postseason basketball.

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

Let's start with Arizona's defense, which Nick Johnson says is at the highest level of the season. The Cats have allowed a combined 82 points in two tournament games. Utah and Colorado combined to shoot a measly 27.6 percent (27 of 98).

"We knew we had the athletes this year to be the top defense in the country," Johnson said. "These last few games, we've been putting it together."

It's rare that a team is simultaneously as big as Arizona, as athletic, as determined defensively, and just as flat-out salty on the perimeter. Johnson and T.J. McConnell form arguably the best defensive tandem Arizona has ever had.

"We got punched in the mouth by a really good basketball team," Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said Thursday night.

Friday night, Colorado coach Tad Boyle added: "One thing about Arizona is you better match their physicality, because they're a very physical team. They're a very athletic team, and they're relentless on the boards."

All that defense leads to multiple Runs of Death, which is how Arizona buried the Buffs on Friday night. Transition after transition after soul-crushing transition in the second half.

Johnson can see the frustration in the opponents' reactions.

"You get a cheap foul from one of their payers or somebody grabs you, gives you a little elbow, stuff like that," Johnson said. "That's when you kind of give that little smirk because you know they're about to break."

Arizona had very little to gain at the Pac-12 tournament, basically already guaranteed of a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. But the Cats had a little wake-up call in the regular-season loss at Oregon, and there's still a big chip on their shoulder from the way the "He Touched the Ball" game went down in the semifinals against UCLA last season.

That it's a rematch in Saturday's final is all the more juicy.

These first two games at the Pac-12 tournament speak most to Arizona's mindset -- Attack! As Miller has said, it's sometimes tougher than you think to flip the switch back on after you turn it off. No chance of hitting that off switch now.

This isn't a Lute Olson-coached team, apathetic about how it does in the conference tournament. This is a team coached by Miller, who, given the referee scandal of last season, you just know would love to take that championship trophy from commissioner Larry Scott amid a celebration at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.

"We're here to win championships," said forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. "We all believe in each other."

Belief and confidence. Those are two things that defined Johnson's favorite play of the game -- the reverse dunk off a pass from T.J. McConnell. And then Johnson delivered the quote of the night.

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

"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."


Put the dunk and the quote -- "I don't have a 47-inch vert for nothing" -- on a poster. And then make another one for Aaron Gordon's block of Xavier Johnson, who was trying to answer with a soaring one-handed dunk of his own.

Gordon went up with him and got all ball.

"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. Wow. It was an amazing block."

Up and up and up.

That describes Arizona's path at the Pac-12 tournament. The Wildcats are playing their basketball at the best time. No guarantees about anything in March, but it's never been easier to believe that much more basketball awaits Arizona.