Stanley Johnson had shown glimpses of his precocious talent during Arizona’s first five games, occasionally showing up on the highlight reels with a soaring dunk or blocked shot.
Under the bright lights of a premiere tournament and a national television audience, the talented freshman stole the show.
Johnson played his best on one of college basketball’s biggest early-season stages, scoring 18 points and grabbing nine rebounds to help No. 3 Arizona gut out a 61-59 victory over No. 15 San Diego State for its second Maui Invitational title Wednesday night.
“We have a lot of guys who don’t like losing here, and I’m the same way,” said Johnson, who added three steals.
Arizona (6-0) withstood a stiff semifinal challenge against Kansas State and faced a bigger one against the athletic Aztecs (5-1).
The Wildcats traded blows in this heavyweight bout in paradise, coming up with the big plays down the stretch to win their 33rd straight regular-season nonconference game.
Johnson was seemingly everywhere, grabbing steals, swatting shots into the stands, pogo-sticking for offensive rebounds. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson gave Arizona his usual exuberant boost, with 14 points, six rebounds and relentless hustle.
And when it came down to the end, the Wildcats closed in around San Diego State defensively to add to the Maui title they won in 2000.
“We leave here feeling very good about what we accomplished,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “We have a long way to go, but I feel like our team took the next step, grew up, improved, and that’s what happens when you challenge yourself against this type of competition.”
Trey Kell had a four-point play with 17 seconds to go and Winston Shepard hit a 3-pointer with less than a second left, but it wasn’t enough for the Aztecs.
San Diego State had a hard time getting good looks at the basket when Arizona turned up the defensive pressure in the second half and was a little too late in the big-play department.
Kell and Shepard had 14 points each to lead the Aztecs, who made 11 of 29 shots in the second half in another difficult loss to Arizona.
“They hit us in the chops, and we didn’t respond when we needed to,” San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said.
An Arizona-San Diego State title game was what college basketball fans hoped for when the Maui Invitational brackets came out.
San Diego State got here by outlasting BYU in double overtime and dominating Pittsburgh in the semifinals.
Arizona pulled away from Missouri in its opener and pulled out a tight one against Kansas State.
That set up a marquee matchup in a budding rivalry.
Arizona has gotten the best of SDSU in recent years, winning three straight, including a thriller in Honolulu in 2012 and the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament last season.
The game lived up to the under-the-spotlight billing, two athletic teams trading baskets, elbows and floor burns in front of a packed-and-rowdy Lahaina Civic Center crowd.
San Diego State was in control early, patiently and effectively probing Arizona’s defense. The Aztecs made 10 of 19 shots in the first half.
The Wildcats kept up with volume shooting, fueled by their ability to get to the offensive glass. Arizona made 11 of 33 shots but had 13 points off 11 offensive rebounds, including five by Johnson.
That allowed Arizona to lead 32-31 at halftime despite Gabe York and T.J. McConnell sitting late in the half with three fouls each.
Little changed in the second half, other than Arizona’s shooting percentage.
The Aztecs and Wildcats continued to trade athletic plays, neither able to gain much traction on the other, tension building with each basket or swatted shot.
Hollis-Jefferson gave Arizona a little room by blocking a 3-pointer by Dwayne Polee II and racing out for a breakaway dunk that made it 53-49.
The Wildcats held on from there for their fourth straight thrilling victory over San Diego State in the past two years.
“All of them are pretty similar,” Shepard said of the games against Arizona. “I feel like we should have won three out of the last four, in my opinion, but they’re a great team.”
San Diego State: Polee finished with 11 points. … The Aztecs hurt themselves at the free throw line, making 13 of 24. Arizona was 20-for-24.
Arizona: Johnson accidentally knocked over a ball boy during a first-half timeout, drawing boos from San Diego State fans on that end of the floor. Shepard helped the kid off the floor.
San Diego State plays at San Diego on Dec. 4.
Arizona hosts Gardner-Webb on Tuesday night.
SOURCE: The Associated Press