"We're an all-around team. Really you could see it in the box score. It was pretty even all the way around," Johnson, the tournament's MVP, said, referring to the five starters scoring in double figures. "We're a good team and we can play with anybody."
The game was expected to be a matchup of two of the best freshmen in the country and, although Aaron Gordon of Arizona and Jabari Parker of Duke didn't spend a lot of time covering each other or supplying highlight clips, they were both key factors in the outcome.
Gordon, the quiet forward, finished with 10 points and seven rebounds and came up big late with a dunk on an alley-oop pass and then fed fellow freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson for a dunk less than a minute later to give the Wildcats (7-0) a 61-51 lead with 3:59 to play.
"He stayed patient, which is one of the qualities that he has as a player," Arizona coach Sean Miller said of Gordon, who had two points in 11 minutes in the first half. "I chose not to play him a lot in the first half, because he was in foul trouble. ... He played 20 minutes in the second half so he was out there more. But we as a group have to find ways to use his offensive talent even more, and he's such a unique player."
Parker, who had 19 points for his first game with fewer than 20 points this season, struggled against Arizona's physical defense and was 7 of 21 from the field. He came into the game shooting 60 percent from the field.
"Jabari gets a lot of attention and it was a good physical game," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "His shots just didn't go down."
Parker, who came into the game shooting 61 percent from beyond the arc, missed all five of his 3-point attempts.
"I need to get experience against big guys," said the 6-foot-8 Parker, who faced an Arizona frontline that goes 6-9, 6-8, 7-foot.
"Two things you can't practice against are quickness and length," Krzyzewski said. "We have quickness. We don't have length. They have great length on their team."
The victory gave Arizona its fourth NIT Season Tip-Off title, tying Duke (6-2) for the most ever.
"I tell you, I'm really ecstatic that we were able to win this tournament here in the Garden," Miller said. "Everybody here knows what a special place this is. We talk to our players a lot about it. ... So everybody embraced where we were because they knew it was a big stage and for us to get on a plane and travel about 15 hours tonight, it's going to be a nice plane ride home because I think we feel good about how hard we played and what we were able to accomplish."
Johnson, the Wildcats' leading scorer at 17.3 per game, shook off a quiet first half to become the focal point of Arizona's offense. His 3-pointer with 11:07 to play tied the game at 45. He hit another 3 with 6:22 left to give Arizona a 57-48 lead.
Brandon Ashley had 13 points and Kalen Tarczewski added 10 points and nine rebounds for the Wildcats, who finished with a 36-28 rebound advantage.
"We talked all year about we don't have a center, and we have good players, and we have to figure out how to be good with the players we have," Krzyzewski said. "So I thought those kids played really well. I mean, I thought they played their hearts out."
Gordon, who came in averaging 12.5 points and 9.7 rebounds, had a big block of Rasheed Sulaimon with 45 seconds left and the Wildcats leading 65-59.
Duke had won 15 straight games in the NIT Season Tip-Off and had won 15 of its last 17 games played at Madison Square Garden.
The Blue Devils, who came into the game shooting 53.4 percent from the field, finished 25 of 58 from the field, including 4 of 14 from 3-point range, where they came in shooting 44.7 percent. They were held 24 points below their scoring average for the season.