SALT LAKE CITY — While medical staffers discussed his broken finger, emailing X-rays to Tucson for further evaluation, Rawle Alkins sat and watched a little television in the Arizona Wildcats’ locker room Saturday evening.
He couldn’t stand it.
Not his right index finger, which was dislocated and broken when he slapped for a ball in the first half of Arizona’s 69-60 NCAA Tournament second-round win over Saint Mary’s.
But the score. He left when the Gaels were ahead 17-12 in the first half. Alkins watched as it went to 20-12.
Then it was 22-12. And 24-14.
“I saw they went up by eight and I told the trainer and the doctor, ‘We have to do whatever it takes to get me back on the court,’” Alkins said. “They did the X-rays and luckily it was a minor fracture. So I said ‘I can play?’ ”
He could. And just over a minute after he came back, Alkins was back to normal form despite having two fingers bandaged together. He spun his way to the basket in characteristic fashion to cut Saint Mary’s lead to just 26-23, with the momentum of the game changing in the Wildcats’ favor for good.
It was in those moments that the Wildcats snapped out of their first-half funk against the patient Gaels, closing out the first half on an 11-4 run and taking advantage of their size and athleticism to pull away in the second half.
Although the stakes were higher than ever — the win moved second-seeded Arizona into an NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 game on Thursday against Xavier in San Jose, California — it was really just another day at the office for the 2016-17 Wildcats.
You know, a little adversity, some tense moments on the court and, ultimately, a way to get it done. Arizona is now 32-4, and every team that has beaten the Wildcats is still alive in the NCAA Tournament.
“It was really like a microcosm of our entire season,” UA coach Sean Miller said.
It was almost exactly a month ago, in fact, when guard Kadeem Allen suffered a similar finger injury in practice two days before the Wildcats played at Washington State. The difference was that Allen didn’t suffer a fracture, only a dislocation — but had the bone pop completely out of his skin.
Alkins’ bone didn’t pop out but the fracture means extra care will be needed. UA trainer Justin Kokoskie said he’ll likely take it a little easier than normal this week while getting treatment and enough protection to play against Xavier.
No way he’s missing that game, either.
“He has that toughness you can’t teach,” UA guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright said. “We’re extremely proud of him. We don’t win this game without him.”
That may be true, especially if you consider Alkins is probably the Wildcat who has kept contributing the most when times have been tough this season, slashing his way to the basket when his teammates were missing 3s or hitting his own 3 over a zone that was temporarily foiling them.
But the truth of it is that the Wildcats actually received most of their production elsewhere.
Namely, inside, where Lauri Markkanen had 16 points and 11 rebounds, while Dusan Ristic had another 13 points and two rebounds.
Together, the two helped answer the inside efficiency of Saint Mary’s center Jock Landale, who had 19 points on 8-for-14 shooting, and 11 rebounds.
“They drove the ball a lot in the first 10 minutes and they found Landale,” Ristic said. “Their whole offense is pick-and-roll and drive. But the second part of the first half we started to play better defense on him.”
Offensively, the Wildcats did it by driving hard to the basket in a number of ways. Allen scored 12 points on 5-for-9 shooting, Alkins was 3 for 7 for his six points, and Allonzo Trier was 4 for 6 in the second half after going scoreless on four field goals in the first half.
Trier also made three of four free throws in the final 1:25 to put the game out of reach, even as Saint Mary’s cut UA’s lead to just five points with 1:54 left on a 3-pointer by Gaels forward Chad Hermanson.
“Our advantage, I think, was to eventually get the ball inside,” Miller said. “I think getting the ball to the basket, whether it be on the drive or post catch, we delivered. We scored. We got fouled.”
It was a glaring contrast to the first 15 minutes of the game. When Saint Mary’s took its first 10-point lead, 22-12 with 6:53 left in the first half, the Wildcats were getting out-rebounded 15-8, had received just one field goal attempt from Markkanen, saw Trier miss his first four shots … all while Alkins was in the locker room.
What’s more, Landale was having his way on seemingly every Saint Mary’s possession.
When the Australian big man dunked with 11:58 to go in the first half, he already had 10 points and five rebounds while helping the Gaels take a 14-10 lead.
But 32 minutes later, Landale led Saint Mary’s players off the floor after a team hug, waving to Gaels fans at the close of the school’s historically successful 29-5 season.
“He had a great game, but eventually our team won,” Ristic said. “Their season is over and we’re going to the Sweet 16. I think that’s the most important thing right now.”