Arizona remained perfect thanks to two late free throws by Mark Lyons and a game-saving blocked shot by Nick Johnson. The Wildcats, who advanced to the tournament final of the Diamond Head Classic by pasting East Tennessee State and Miami, got all they bargained for Tuesday in Honolulu from No. 17 San Diego State.
Arizona senior guard Mark Lyons sank the game winning free throws with 13.1 seconds left to knock off No. 17 San Diego State.
The Aztecs (11-2) pushed Arizona to the brink, taking a 67-66 lead with 31 seconds to play on a free throw by Jamaal Franklin. The Wildcats advanced the ball to half court before Sean Miller called for Arizona’s final timeout to set up a potential game-winning score. Miller got just that as the Wildcats shied away from their usual high screen and instead opened the floor for senior guard Lyons to operate one-on-one in space. Lyons initiated his attack with a quick crossover dribble and got deep into the lane before being fouled at the rim with 13.1 seconds to go.
Lyons, who finished with just nine points on 2-for-9 shooting, sank both free throw attempts to put the Wildcats ahead 68-67.
SDSU’s final possession was a good one as Chase Tapley curled off a high ball screen to eventually work his way into a straight line push toward the hoop. Nick Johnson, who was defending Thames initially got caught against the screener but rather than giving up on the play took a diagonal path across the key to meet Tapley at the rim and swat his layup attempt away as teammates rallied to secure the loose ball as time expired.
Third-ranked Arizona (12-0) is off to its best start since 1987-88 when Steve Kerr and Sean Elliott led the Wildcats to their first Final Four in school history. Similar aspirations for these Cardiac Cats are present, especially after Arizona has proven not once but twice this season against two Top 20 opponents that they are capable of winning the tight games.
Earlier in the month, Arizona rallied from a six-point deficit to best then-No. 5 Florida on a game-winning bucket by Lyons with 7.1 seconds remaining. Tonight, Lyons and the Wildcats provided yet another theatrical comeback in front of a nationally-televised audience.
As clutch as Lyons’ late-game free throws were tonight, and as thrilling as Johnson’s blocked shot was, the Wildcats can thank Solomon Hill and Kevin Parrom for their efforts against the Aztecs. The senior duo combined for 37 points, 11 rebounds and five assists. Parrom scored 17 points while Hill turned in a season-high 21 points and six boards.
The Wildcats led 29-27 at halftime as neither team shot well to open the game. SDSU connected on just 35.7 percent of its shots while the Wildcats were a season-low 29.4 percent shooting in the opening frame.
The Aztecs overcame the deficit to lead by eight points thanks to a 14-4 scoring run to open the second half. SDSU maintained its advantage until the Wildcats finally found their groove following an offensive rebound by Hill and an assist to Ashley for an easy score to trim Arizona’s deficit to 45-39 with just under 14 minutes remaining. The bucket triggered a 7-0 scoring run by Arizona, helping the Wildcats cut into SDSU’s lead and trail by only a point at 45-44 with 12 minutes left.
Tapley, who scored 19 points for the Aztecs, answered Arizona’s scoring run with a 3-Pointer only to have Parrom drain a trey on the Wildcats’ next possession to keep the game close.
Arizona would eventually take its first lead of the second half at 51-50 on two free throws by Hill with 10:16 to go. The two nationally ranked teams would then continue to trade leads over the final 10 minutes.
SDSU led 61-60 entering the game’s final television timeout. Arizona’s Parrom scored inside coming out of the break, which was soon followed by another 3-Pointer by Tapley to put the Aztecs back up 64-62. Not to be outdone, Parrom again responded to Tapley’s trey by knocking down a 3-Pointer of his own off a kick-out pass from Hill to put Arizona back up, 65-64.
SDSU retook the lead on two free throw makes by Xavier Thames with 1:22 remaining. Arizona’s Hill then sank one of two foul attempts to even the score with a minute left on the game clock. On SDSU’s next possession, the Aztecs secured an offensive rebound to set up a dribble-drive by Jamaal Franklin who was fouled going to the basket. Franklin missed his first free throw attempt, but sank the next to give SDSU a tenuous 67-66 lead with 31.4 seconds left.
After a timeout by Arizona, Lyons’ own dribble drive resulted in the senior guard sinking both attempts from the charity stripe to set up Johnson’s defensive heroics as the Wildcats successfully protected the one-point advantage and take home the tournament hardware.
Johnson joined Hill and Parrom in double figures for Arizona with 11 points. Brandon Ashley added nine points and seven rebounds.
Tapley’s 19 points led the Aztecs. Thames had 11 points while JJ O’Brien added 10 points and five rebounds. Franklin, who was plagued with early foul trouble, finished with just nine points but did pull down eight rebounds.
The victory concludes Arizona’s non-conference schedule. The Wildcats will break and part ways for the next 3-4 days with players heading to their hometowns while the coaches hit the recruiting trail to attend several holiday high school basketball tournaments.
The Wildcats begin Pac-12 Conference play next Thursday, Jan. 3 when they host the Colorado Buffaloes at McKale Center. Tip time is scheduled for 6 p.m. MST. The game will be televised on ESPNU.
Follow me on Twitter @GaryRandazzo, and follow the website @WSRArizona.
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