STANFORD, Calif. — In many ways, No. 21 was standard formula for Arizona.
When the No. 1 Wildcats beat Stanford 60-57 to push their school-record start to 21-0 on Wednesday at Maples Pavilion, there was some shaky shooting from the field and free throw line, a stiff defensive effort and the ever-increasing dose of Nick Johnson heroics.
In the end, Johnson hit a jumper, a three-pointer and two free throws in the final 2:36 to make the difference, while a final three-point try from Stanford’s Chasson Randle failed.
But this made the story a bit different: With a big, physical front line, Stanford actually became the first team ever this season to out-rebound the Wildcats, 38-36, limiting Arizona to just six offensive rebounds and only seven second-chance points.
That pulled Arizona down into a hard-fought game that featured 11 lead changes and a late four-minute stretch in which nobody could manage to score at all.
“We know by now we’re going to get everybody’s best shot and that’s what happened,” Johnson said. “They had a packed crowd, a hyped crowd and it was a tough game.”
In the end, it was still rowdy in the stands but that’s because at least a quarter of the capacity crowd of 7,233 at Maples was rooting for Arizona, making the place seem as homey as Madison Square Garden was when the Wildcats started really opening eyes by beating Duke back in November.
While T.J. McConnell brought the UA fans to life in an otherwise quiet first half for the Wildcats, collecting nine points and six rebounds, it was Johnson at the end as it was against San Diego State, against Duke, against Michigan, and against UCLA.
The likely winner if there were a Pac-12 midseason Player of the Year award, Johnson hit two free throws with 5.8 seconds left to put UA up by threwe while Randle’s potential game-tying shot failed on the other end.
Earlier, Johnson hit a floater with 2:44 left that broke a 53-53 deadlock and, after Stanford’s Dwight Powell tied it at 55 with 1:21 left, a three-pointer that put UA ahead for good at 58-55.
Johnson also rebounded a missed layup from Randle in the final seconds, though he missed a free throw when he was fouled after doing so.
Johnson said he was mad at himself that he made only 5 of 9 free throws but that might be considered a forgivable sin, considering Johnson’s increasing ability to deliver on clutch plays.
“That’s what the leader on the team is supposed to do,” Johnson said. “If you’re shaky and kind of hesitant about everything, then everybody else will be. So I’ve just got to keep that confidence in my mind. I’ve done the work to deserve this.”
Johnson finished with a team-high 16 points while McConnell had 11 points and eight rebounds. Aaron Gordon, in his return home to the South Bay, shot just 2 for 10 from the field and missed the front end of a one-and-one with 11.6 seconds left, but had nine rebounds.
Against Stanford, nine rebounds was pretty significant. Gordon also had two of Arizona’s six offensive boards.
“Stanford’s a great defensive rebounding team,” UA coach Sean Miller said. “Because of the way they chose to play defense, packing it in, that put them at an even bigger advantage. They’re big. There aren’t many teams that are as big as we are and they might be even bigger.”
The win moved Arizona to 21-0, the third-longest streak at the beginning of a season for any team in the Pac-10 or Pac-12. The Wildcats are 8-0 in conference play entering a Saturday night game at Cal.
Stanford dropped to 13-7 and 4-4.
The Wildcats were out-rebounded 9-1 in the early minutes of the second half, helping Stanford build a 49-42 lead with 15:40 to go.
Those struggles matched the Wildcats’ start of the game, when they missed six of their first seven shots while Stanford took an early 9-2 lead. McConnell bailed them out offensively, but insisted it wasn’t anything special.
“It was just in the flow of the game,” McConnell said.
Arizona finished with just 36.0 percent shooting from the field while making just 62.1 percent of its free throws.
“Our team didn’t execute as well,” Miller said. “We have to be able to get it from side to side and Stanford tried to crowd the paint and we almost tried to force the action. We dribbled in closer instead of really sharing the ball and moving it.
“Sometimes when you do that, a guy like Nick doesn’t get the same shots he normally does. But he made some big ones at the end.”