Editor’s note: The following is a game story I wrote on Jan. 23, 2011 for TucsonCitizen.com when Shabazz Muhammad and Las Vegas Bishop Gorman played Nick Johnson and Henderson (Nev.) Findlay Prep. It was one of the best high school basketball games I have witnessed, and I’ve seen plenty. Muhammad and Johnson share the court Thursday for the first time since that matchup when UCLA plays Arizona at McKale Center. It’s a marquee matchup in Pac-12 and college hoops much like the Bishop Gorman and Findlay Prep game was significant, not only in Las Vegas, but in the nation because of the magnitude of both programs when it comes to recruiting for college coaches.
LAS VEGAS — Arizona assistant coach Archie Miller could not attend Saturday night’s double-overtime thriller between Henderson (Nev.) Findlay Prep and Las Vegas Bishop Gorman here because of a prior engagement in Pullman, Wash.
So Miller went to his next-best option knowing that some recognizable coaches would be in attendance at Cox Pavilion, which is adjacent to Thomas and Mack Arena, UNLV’s home arena. Lon Kruger and his Rebels staff were among the many collegiate coaches watching the prospects on the Findlay and Gorman rosters.
More appropriately, these coaches attended Findlay’s 89-86 victory to be seen by the players and the parents or guardians.
With Arizona’s staff in the Palouse coaching the Wildcats to their most important victory in the brief Sean Miller Era, what was their best way to compete against the scenario of UCLA coach Ben Howland sitting courtside next to Jerry Tarkanian?
What was their answer for Washington coach Lorenzo Romar and Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford walking on the court after the game in plain view?
Findlay guard Nick Johnson, a Class of 2011 signee with Arizona, became an extension of the Wildcat coaching staff. He not only had the task of guarding potential McDonald’s All-American Shabazz Muhammad of Bishop Gorman, but also show Muhammad’s teammates — Class of 2012 standouts Rosco Allen and Ben Carter — what could lie ahead if they team with Johnson at Arizona.
“I talked to Archie and he said just go at them,” said Johnson, when asked about playing against the potential future teammates. “Archie said, ‘Make them see what they are still missing.’ I mean, they are young bucks still. We are recruiting them. It would be huge to get them.”
Editor’s note: Allen eventually signed with Stanford and Carter with Oregon.
Some of the more optimistic Arizona fans believe the “them” Johnson is talking about should include Muhammad, a slender yet strong 6-foot-6, 205-pound, Class of 2012 wing player who is garnering interest from the nation’s elite including North Carolina, Duke, UCLA, Kentucky and Texas. Memphis, coached by former UA player and assistant coach Josh Pastner, is also aggressively recruiting him.
Muhammad contends that he includes Arizona on his list, but even his high school coach Grant Rice insinuated to me after Saturday night’s game that the Wildcats are not in his immediate plans.
“Nick playing against Shabazz tonight was a good individual matchup,” Rice said. “They will probably play each other again in college at some point.”
The Johnson-Muhammad matchup was worth the $10 ticket fans purchased to attend the thrill-a-minute game at Cox Pavilion. Rice said the fee to occupy Cox Pavilion for what was billed “The Big City Showdown” was $9,000.
“Can you believe that?” Rice said incredulously to Findlay assistant coach Todd Simon after the game. “$9,000.”
The way the game concluded, the price actually seems like a bargain.
The standing-room-only crowd in excess of 3,100 was entertained with Johnson trying to contain Muhammad from the start to the end of the game when Texas-bound guard Myck Kabongo drew defenders and kicked the ball out to an open Kevin Kaspar for the game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer.
“Nick is a great player, a Micky D All-American (McDonald’s All-American),” said Muhammad, who finished with 32 points, scoring 12 of them in the two overtime sessions after Johnson fouled out. “It’s tough to play against him on the offensive end, just trying to go to the basket on him. He was doing a really good job on defense.”
Findlay coach Mike Peck kept Johnson on Muhammad for most of the game. Simon said Findlay could have used others from time to time on Muhammad, who is similar to Arizona’s Derrick Williams in that he prides himself going to the free-throw line as much as making a highlight-reel dunk.
Johnson, however, wanted the exclusive assignment, although he realized the crowd’s reaction to Muhammad could have an effect on how the referees called the game.
“We knew coming in that this is Las Vegas, this is his hometown,” Johnson said. “He’ll get everything, and he did. But I think I made him work for every shot and that’s a good thing. We came out with the ‘W’, that’s all that matters to me.
“I just guarded (Syracuse-bound) Michael Carter-Williams and (Oklahoma State signee) LeBryan Nash (at the HoopHall Classic in Springfield, Mass.) so I’ve had some big matchups. So it was nothing really.”
The task of containing Muhammad affected Johnson on the offensive end, according to Simon, because of the attention necessary to stay between Muhammad and the basket on defense. Rice also trapped Johnson on the perimeter when he tried to set up for the three or make a drive to the basket.
Johnson, who finished with a season-low 10 points, did not make his first field goal until 37 seconds remained in the third quarter.
“He’s our defensive stopper; he draws those assignments,” Simon said. “In the process, he occasionally sacrifices his offensive game, which is unbelievable. He’ll have a bright future because he can do that for a team.”
Muhammad forced plenty of off-balanced shots against Johnson, who at 6-3 gives up a couple of inches. As the game progressed, Muhammad tried to take Johnson more off the dribble all the way to the hoop and draw the foul. The referees increasingly called fouls on most possessions from the fourth quarter on.
“Nick is an unbelievable defender and Shabazz took that personally,” Rice said. “It was a great matchup between two McDonald’s All-American type players going at it. It was fun to watch. Shabazz is a little bigger than Nick, and Shabazz competes with everybody.”
After fouling out early in the first overtime session, Johnson became a spectator like so many others in the cramped gym. As a competitor in the same vein as Muhammad, it was excruciating for Johnson to occupy a seat on the bench and not be able to help his teammates. That pain was detectable on Johnson’s face.
Findlay managed to win thanks to the athleticism of Kabongo, who finished with 26 points and created scoring opportunities for others with his quickness off the dribble. When Kaspar nailed the game-winning three off the Kabongo feed, Johnson was one of the first Findlay players to rush the floor and hug Kaspar at midcourt.
“Honestly, I would hate to be a coach and sit and watch the game like that,” Johnson said with a laugh. “I wanted to be out there so badly. It was definitely difficult. We were working all game. I trusted my teammates and I knew we would come out on top.”
Site publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner