LAS VEGAS — Over 14,000 mostly hostile fans ushered Deandre Ayton into the first overtime game of his college career Saturday at the Thomas & Mack Center, but nerves be damned.
All he had to do was look inside his heart, then over at Allonzo Trier.
The two combined for all 13 of Arizona’s overtime points and a full 62 percent of the Wildcats’ scoring in a 91-88 overtime win at UNLV.
“Great. Great!” Ayton said of his emotions afterward. “Not nervous at all. … It was overtime so it’s about who’s the toughest team.”
Earlier in the evening, Arizona didn’t look so tough. The Wildcats instead showed flashes of the team that lost three games in the Battle 4 Atlantis a week earlier, struggling defensively, especially by allowing UNLV inside often, while their offense had moments of stagnation and inefficiency.
But, with some complementary help from their teammates, Ayton and Trier made up for all of that in the second half and overtime periods.
“At the end of the day, you can’t forget about the best duo in the NCAA,” Ayton said. “We know each other’s personalities. I know what he can do and he knows what I can do. We really try to execute.”
After just eight games of playing with Ayton, Trier said their bond is getting stronger. They know now more than ever that what each one does can open things up for the other.
“Trust me, whenever me and Dre are in a pick-and-roll situation or on the same side of the floor it’s really hard” for opposing defenses, Trier said. “They have to make decisions. I was able to find Dre a couple of times and he was trying to find me.
“I’m gonna make the game easier for him and he’s going to make the game easier for me, so trying to find that good balance, that yin-yang.”
On Saturday, that synergy helped produce 28 points and 10 rebounds from Ayton, while Trier scored 29 on 10-for-19 shooting, missing 5 of 6 threes but driving inside often and hitting 8 of 9 free throws off the fouls he picked up while doing so.
Their combined effort Saturday meant Trier and Ayton have now scored 51.7 percent of Arizona’s points through eight games so far this season.
With characteristic confidence, Trier explained further how it all works.
“Our gifts are that we’re incredible and tough to guard one-on-one, so if I throw it in there and there’s a guy guarding me they can’t help,” Trier said. “They’re not going to help (guard Ayton) and give me a 3-point shot, so Dre has a lot more room to operate.
“And say I’m driving to the rim — sometimes Dre’s ducking in, but a guy’s not going to come over and try to block (my shot) because they’re worried about Dre. It’s just about being smart and reading the defense.”
Their efforts Saturday helped offset what UA coach Sean Miller called a little “deer-in-the-headlights” look in the first half, when the Wildcats shot just 35 percent and trailed 41-30 at halftime.
Miller cited turnaround help from Parker Jackson-Cartwright, Ira Lee, Dylan Smith and Brandon Randolph, who made all three shots he took in the second half. But mostly, of course, Miller credited his Big Two, saying both Trier and Ayton were “terrific.”
“At the end of the day we have two offensive players who are really good, and I think our team over time will learn how to utilize those two guys, how to bring out the best in them, because both of them will make the game easier for the rest of our team,” Miller said.
“That’s up to us as a coaching staff to do that as well.”
All this suggests maybe Ayton and Trier weren’t exactly intended targets of Miller’s postgame rant on Wednesday, when the coach broadly criticized his players’ effort following a 35-point win over Long Beach State.
But Ayton welcomed the criticism.
“Zo and I were included in that,” Ayton said. “We’re the main reason that we have to set that. It starts with us first. Nobody’s entitled on this team. We’re all equal. And on the defensive end we have to have more effort. Coach wants us to get our stuff done on the defensive end.”
While the defensive end still needs plenty of help — Arizona allowed UNLV to shoot 53.2 percent from the field Saturday — Trier said he was sure Miller’s message reached UA’s younger players.
“Kind of a wake-up call,” Trier said. “We have a lot of young guys. This is their first eight games playing for Sean Miller, so they have no clue what it’s like. But with a guy like me, Sean Miller’s been coaching me since I was a junior in high school (with USA Basketball), so we have history together. We’ve spent quite a bit of time together, so I understand what he wants out of me.”
Today, Trier figures that expectation is to offer more than just his team-high 23.9-point scoring average.
“It’s about rising to the challenge and trying to set an example for these freshmen,” Trier said. “I can’t just worry about me. I can’t just be good enough and say, ‘I’m doing all right’ and not setting an example, setting the tone for these other guys. I could give a little more of myself and try to lead this team.”
• Sophomore forward Rawle Alkins could soon give UA a third go-to option. He went aggressively through early pregame warmups Saturday, though Miller said Alkins isn’t likely to play Tuesday against Texas A&M because he has still participated in only one full-contact practice so far in his recovery from a broken foot.
• Freshman forward Emmanuel Akot played just two minutes on Saturday, after logging five against LBSU. Miller said Akot continues to suffer from knee tendinitis but also “hasn’t performed well.”