HONOLULU — No. 3 Arizona is off to its best start in 25 years, thanks to a defensive play that no one saw coming — except for Nick Johnson.
San Diego State guard Chase Tapley curled around a screen and burst down the left side of the lane in the closing seconds for what looked to be an uncontested layup. Johnson raced across and swatted the ball away, preserving the Wildcats’ 68-67 win over the 17th-ranked Aztecs in the championship game of the Diamond Head Classic on Tuesday night.
“He made one hell of a play," Tapley said. “I just have to tip my hat off to him. I didn’t even know he was around. He just came out of nowhere. I’m thinking the game is over. The next thing you know, the ball is going off the backboard."
Mark Lyons drove to the basket on Arizona’s final possession and was fouled, making two free throws with 13 seconds left for the final points of the game. Arizona (12-0) goes into Pac-12 Conference play with its best start since the 1987-88 season, and with its first win over a ranked team away from home in four years.
“It took two great plays on both offense and defense to secure the win," Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “And we made both of them."
Solomon Hill, voted the tournament MVP, kept Arizona in the game with 21 points and a stellar defensive effort on Jamaal Franklin, who scored only nine points to end his streak of 32 straight games in double figures. With the game tied at 66, Franklin was fouled driving to the basket with 31 seconds left, but missed one of two free throws.
That turned out to be the difference.
Tapley led the Aztecs (11-2) with 19 points.
“It hurts," San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said. “It’s hard when you have a chance to win a championship, have a shot to beat an undefeated team, and you don’t quite get it done, and you think you’re going to do it right until the very last play of the game. It hurts badly."