LAS VEGAS —
Sean Miller’s halftime speech was probably brief Friday night. Maybe he marched into his team’s small locker room. Maybe he told Deandre Ayton to stand up.
“Gentlemen, this is Deandre Ayton,” Miller could have said. “He has been blessed with as fantastic a body as God has granted anyone. Pass him the ball. Deandre, when they pass you the ball, dunk it.
“If you don’t know it by now, Deandre is No. 13. I don’t care if you have triskaidekaphobia and the No. 13 makes your eyes go crossed for three days. Pass the ball to No. 13. He’ll be standing by the basket. If you get the ball, do not think about shooting. Pass the ball to No. 13.
“If you do that, we will beat UCLA.”
And so Ayton scored 25 points after halftime. Arizona won 78-67 in overtime and moved on to another Pac-12 Tournament championship game.
Is it too late to elect Miller as the league’s Coach of the Year?
OK, maybe this is all an exaggeration. Miller didn’t have to introduce Ayton to his teammates at halftime. After all, Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins both took eight shots in the second half.
How’d that work? Both of them made one bucket.
Ayton made 10 of his last 12 shots. Average distance on each shot? About two feet. He also made five free throws in the second half, which was a difference-maker. I mean, UCLA made just one foul shot in the final 25 minutes.
How do you lose when all of those numbers align?
Believe it or not, it was the first time all season Ayton has scored 30 points in a game. Are you kidding me? He only averages 12½ shots per game. That’s like having Willie Mays on your team and batting him eighth.
When the Wildcats dribbled out the clock Friday night, Ayton got the ball with six seconds remaining and everyone else walked off the court. He watched the final seconds tick, and then handed the ball to referee Dave Hall.
Pretty heady stuff. Give it to Deandre.
It only took four months to understand how much of a difference he can make.
“If you’ve got a Deandre Ayton, it’s a pretty simple solution,” said UCLA coach Steve Alford. “He’s special. He made just about everything.”
Arizona’s concentrated effort to involve Ayton into its offense was manifest in the first six minutes of the half as Arizona broke a tie and took a 48-43 lead.
Ayton hit a short jumper with 19:06 on the clock.
He almost blew the net from the rim with a dunk at 17:09.
He made a flip-hook from the baseline at 14:27.
He hit a short jumper with 13:37.
UCLA was in trouble.
“He kind of got away from us tonight,” said UCLA’s 7-foot center Thomas Welsh. “He’s a special player.”
Ayton has been the focus of so much attention this season that you took it for granted he got past the break-in stage sometime before Christmas. But he admitted he was nervous — “I had butterflies,” he said — before Thursday’s quarterfinal victory over Colorado, and we discovered that he is human.
He might’ve played his least effective game of the season against Colorado, missing 10 of 14 shots and bricking four of his six foul shots. It’s a good thing Arizona didn’t open against UCLA.
On Friday, Ayton said “the nervousness went away; it was just business.”
For Arizona to win another Pac-12 Tournament championship, and to advance into the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, it will need three things: (1) a dedication to get Ayton the ball (2) the kind of toughness and purpose on defense that dogged UCLA’s best player, point guard Aaron Holiday, on a night he shot 5 for 20; and (3) some good luck.
As for the luck stuff, who knows? The NCAA Tournament is the most unpredictable of America’s major sporting events.
But Arizona has the ability to make the first two variables part of its daily business.
It’s unlikely the Wildcats will face a better team than UCLA on the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. If the NCAA selection committee awards a berth to the fading (faded?) Arizona State Sun Devils and does not give the Bruins a No. 10 or No. 11 seed, it’ll be baffling.
Don’t give me that Quadrant 1 and Quadrant 2 nonsense. UCLA passes the eye-test the way Ayton does.
At the media timeout with 7:45 remaining in regulation Friday — Arizona led 55-52 — a small crowd gathered in front of the Pac-12 Networks broadcast table at center court. Those in the group included the owner of the Dodgers, the man who produced “Beverly Hills Cop,” the MVP of Super Bowl LII, the man who lit the flame at the 1984 Summer Olympics and possibly the best female basketball player ever.
Do you know what Magic Johnson, Jerry Bruckheimer, Nick Foles, Rafer Johnson and Cheryl Miller were talking about?
My guess is Deandre Ayton.
Over the next 12:45, Ayton scored 15 points. UCLA’s entire team only scored 15.
“I don’t see anyone playing better than him right now,” said Alkins.
It’s about time Arizona introduced Ayton to the rest of the country.