Arizona star guard Nick Johnson has proven during his three years in Tucson that he can do almost anything on a basketball court.
He even added cheerleader to that list during a 71-39 win over Utah in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 tournament at the MGM Grand on Thursday.
The top-seeded Wildcats (29-3) advanced to play fifth-seeded Colorado, a 59-56 winner over fourth-seeded California, in a 6 p.m. semifinal today.
Johnson, the conference player of the year and a former Findlay Prep standout, saw his day end early as he went to the bench with 10:11 to play and the Wildcats ahead of the eighth-seeded Utes 53-21.
Instead of kicking back and enjoying the short day of work, Johnson was the first to jump up and cheer when a teammate scored or applaud when anyone checked out of the game.
Arizona coach Sean Miller said it’s one of the qualities that makes Johnson so special.
“Nick is an All-American and the Pac-12 player of the year on both ends of the floor. But most importantly, he’s highly intelligent, and he’s really an unselfish kid who wants to win,” Miller said. “He embodies all of the qualities of a winner. He cares so much about his teammates, and when you do that as a team’s best player, what ends up happening is it spreads and others tend to do the same thing.”
Johnson’s biggest smile was reserved for the final two minutes, when his older brother Chris knocked down a 3-pointer for his first field goal of the season.
“I knew it was good right when it left his hands,” Nick Johnson said. “We were all happy for him.”
Chris Johnson transferred to Arizona as a walk-on to play with his younger brother, after playing two seasons at Grand Canyon. He attended Cal State San Bernardino last year but did not play.
He had appeared in three games this season without attempting a field goal. His only point had come on a free throw in a win over Arizona State in January.
“It’s been a great experience to be able to play with him again,” Chris Johnson said. “I haven’t played with him since high school. Obviously being on a team this good and this together has been unbelievable. (Nick) has matured a lot the last three years being here, but I do think I’ve helped him, too, just by being here for him both on and off the court. It’s always good to have family around. It just helps.”
Nick Johnson said being with his brother has added to an already special season for Arizona.
“It’s been great. Who wouldn’t want to play with their big brother?” Nick Johnson said. “Whenever I’m having a bad day or something like that, it’s always nice to have someone who has known you your whole life there to be able to talk to you.”
It has shown on the court.
Johnson, who was thought to not have a true position when he was one of the top prep prospects in the country, has mastered all three perimeter spots.
He averaged 16.0 points, 4.0 rebounds and 2.8 assists as a junior in leading Arizona to the top of the rankings for much of the season.
Johnson showcased his well-rounded game in just 26 minutes Thursday.
He went 4 of 6 from the field, including 2 of 3 from 3-point range, and scored a game-high 14 points to go with three rebounds and three assists. Seven of his points came during a 15-0 run in the first half from which the Utes (21-11) never recovered.
Arizona led 34-13 at halftime.
“We know that when our offense is clicking and defense is clicking, we can do that,” Johnson said. “You look up and think that can’t be the score.”
More important, Johnson played lockdown defense on Utah’s leading scorer, Delon Wright.
Wright scored just five points on one field goal, which came on his eighth and final attempt and in transition before Johnson could pick him up.
T.J. McConnell added 13 points and four assists for Arizona. Dallin Bachynski led Utah with nine points.
Colorado (23-10) led by nine at halftime and survived when Justin Cobbs’s 3-point attempt at the buzzer hit the side of the rim.
Askia Booker had 13 points and three assists for the Buffaloes, who had their lead cut to one on several occasions but never never trailed in the second half.
Cobbs scored a game-high 21 points for California (19-13).
Second-seeded UCLA (23-9) opened the second half on a 17-3 run to pull away from seventh-seeded Oregon (24-8) in an 82-63 victory to open the night session.
Jodan Adams had 15 points to pace the Bruins, with Zach LaVine and Travis Wear scoring 14 apiece. Joseph Young scored a game-high 29 for the Ducks.
UCLA will play sixth-seeded Stanford, which got by third-seeded Arizona State 79-58 in Thursday’s last quarterfinal, at 8:30 tonight.
Chasson Randle had 21 points to lead the Cardinal (21-11), who led wire-to-wire.
The Sun Devils (21-11) were led by Jonathan Gilling’s 13 points.
Jahii Carson and Jordan Bachynski combined to go just 5-for-18 from the field and score 17 points for Arizona State.
Contact reporter Adam Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-224-5509. Follow him on Twitter: @adamhilllvrj.