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September 2, 2014

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PAC-12 TOURNAMENT:

Findlay Prep product Nick Johnson back to lighting up Las Vegas with Arizona

Pac-12 Player of the Year leads historic defensive effort in tournament quarterfinals

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ASSOCIATED PRESS

Arizona’s Nick Johnson is fouled by Utah’s Princeton Onwas (3) while shooting in the first half of an NCAA Pac-12 conference tournament college basketball game, Thursday, March 13, 2014, in Las Vegas.

In other action Thursday at the Pac-12 Tournament

  • Colorado 59, California 56: Colorado's Askia Booker scored 17 points and California's Justin Cobbs, 21 points, missed a three at the buzzer to force overtime.
  • UCLA 82, Oregon 63: The Bruins blew out the Ducks by 17 points in the second half as Jordan Adams, Travis Wear, Zach LaVine, Kyle Anderson and David Wear all scored in double digits.
  • Stanford 79, Arizona State 58: Chasson Randle torched the Sun Devils for 21 points as the Cardinal never trailed.
  • Friday's Games: No. 1 seed Arizona vs. No. 5 seed Colorado 6 p.m.; No. 2 seed UCLA vs. No. 6 seed Stanford at 8:30 p.m.

The conditioning was grueling, the practices taxing.

When Arizona guard Nick Johnson arrived at Findlay Prep four years ago as a junior in high school, he had to quickly acclimate to a new level of preparation. It was a mental and physical challenge beyond what he expected.

“We saw people leave because they couldn’t handle it,” Johnson said. “If you finish it and go through it, then in college you’re faced with stuff you’ve already been through.”

Johnson made the tough decision to depart from the comfort and familiarity of his hometown in Gilbert, Ariz., to attend the Henderson-based basketball powerhouse as a 16-year old. He’s reaped the benefits ever since.

The now 21-year-old college junior continues to credit his time as a Pilot as a big part of the reason for his current success. Johnson won the Pac-12 Player of the Year award and is in the running for National Player of the Year honors.

He’s quite possibly the best player on the best team in the nation. No one at the MGM Grand Garden Arena would dispute that distinction after Thursday afternoon, when Johnson and his Arizona teammates administered a 71-39 drubbing of Utah in the Pac-12 tournament quarterfinals.

The Wildcats likely locked up a No. 1 seed in the tournament by holding the Utes to the fewest points in tournament history behind suffocating defense and a game-high 14 points from Johnson.

“It started a long time ago with Nick wanting to be on a special team this year,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “He’s certainly our leader.”

Johnson’s command of the Wildcats was apparent from the beginning of Thursday’s game. He came out wanting to show that Arizona still had the “swagger” some assumed it lost in a season-ending defeat to Oregon.

The score was 7-6 Arizona five minutes into the game, but never close after that. The Wildcats went on a 15-0 run that featured Johnson scoring eight points — including two swished three-pointers — and initiating even more buckets on fast breaks.

Johnson provided most of the defense that held Delon Wright scoreless for the opening 29 minutes until Utah’s leading scorer sank a free throw to cut Arizona’s lead down to 51-18.

“You look up and think, ‘That can’t be the score,’” Johnson said.

Click to enlarge photo

Arizona's Gabe York, left, and Nick Johnson (13) react to an Arizona basket late in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 conference tournament against Utah, Thursday, March 13, 2014, in Las Vegas. Arizona won 71-39.

Johnson soon retired to the bench, where he stayed as energetic as he was on the court. He shouted instructions during play, coached up teammates in the middle of timeouts and celebrated wildly when they made shots.

The biggest reaction came with the Wildcats’ final points of the afternoon. Johnson danced as his older brother, walk-on Chris Johnson, hit a three-pointer.

It was Chris Johnson’s first field-goal attempt of the year, something Nick Johnson had waited for since his sibling joined him in Tucson, Ariz., before this season.

“Who wouldn’t want their big brother to be on the team,” Nick asked. “Most people do it in high school. I’m fortunate enough to do it in high school and college.”

Nick’s first two years at Highland High School coincided with Chris’ last. When Chris went off to junior college at Grand Canyon, Nick got the offer to join Findlay.

Initially hesitant to take the opportunity, Nick eventually came to the conclusion that it was the best move for his career. Chris noticed a near-immediate change.

“He grew up a lot,” Chris said. “That environment was like a college environment — conditioning-wise, school-wise. The players around him were obviously college level. That got him ready for big-time college.”

Nick enjoyed his time in Southern Nevada, which included a national championship. Findlay Prep won the ESPN RISE National High School Invitational in 2010 before failing to repeat in Nick’s senior year.

But he believes the whole experience helped put him in position to win other championships, namely Arizona’s first Pac-12 Tournament crown since 2002 and its first national title since 1997.

“If I had to go back, I wouldn’t do it any other way,” Nick said. “It was definitely a learning experience. That was something that accelerated me and matured me as a player.”

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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