SALT LAKE CITY — Arizona’s pregame warm-ups were coming to a close Thursday when Arizona walk-on Jake Desjardins alley-ooped the ball to himself off the backboard and dunked it.
He laughed the whole time.
Lauri Markkanen tried bouncing the ball to himself and putting it between his legs, but couldn’t convert the attempt. It’s one of the few shots he missed on Thursday.
About two hours later, Desjardins entered Arizona’s opening round NCAA Tournament game. The Wildcats led North Dakota by 21 points with 1:08 left, the game all but over.
“You just want to go in there and get a win, but as it got late and we went up around 20, I thought there could be a chance,” Desjardins said. “It got more real as time went on.”
In all likelihood, it’s a moment that probably won’t happen again this year. Desjardins is OK with that; so are the other walk-ons.
Just look around Arizona’s locker room. Kobi Simmons hasn’t played much. It’s March. There’s no time for sentiment.
Don’t ask Rawle Alkins about sentimentality. Or Markkanen.
They’re only freshmen but — and this certainly has been written before — it doesn’t feel like it.
Not everyone had a great night — at one point, North Dakota cut a 53-37 halftime lead for Arizona to a dwindling seven-point lead. Then senior Kadeem Allen scored seven points amid a 10-0 run to put the game away.
It was around this point when UA coach Sean Miller told him, “If you want to go out like this, so be it,” Allen said.
“It’s not over until the buzzer sounds,” Allen said. “We kept fighting until we came out on top.”
North Dakota was playing in its first-ever NCAA Tournament game, just like Alkins, and Desjardins, and Markkanen and Simmons and Keanu Pinder.
There were no butterflies for Markkanen, who came out in the first half doing most of his handiwork inside the 3-point line — scoring 16 points on eight shots, missing his lone 3-point attempt — and then passed the baton to his teammates in the second half, when he only scored four points on four shot attempts. He finished with 20 points and six rebounds.
With 1:31 left in the game — again, it was over, the walk-ons, were checking into the game — Alkins attempted a pass to Dusan Ristic that was tipped back to him. Alkins powerfully forced his way to the rim for two points. They were Arizona’s 99th and 100th points of the night, a feat the Wildcats, as prolific of an offense as Miller has coached, had yet to accomplish this season. They won 100-82.
Alkins pitched basketball’s version of a perfect game, converting all eight of his shot attempts for 20 points, while contributing five assists, four rebounds and a block.
“They’ve been like that all season, even in practice, whatever game we played, they’ve been a rock for our team since day one,” Allen said.
“For them to play their first NCAA Tournament game, Rawle stepped up big time and Lauri stepped up big time. They made big plays and kept us in the game.”
Added Miller: “Lauri and Rawle were our two best players tonight.”
This is a far cry from last year’s team, which relied mostly on upperclassmen and graduate transfers. The Wildcats were outclassed by Wichita State in the first round of last year’s tournament, in part because they had such obvious flaws.
Arizona was much improved on Thursday — though far from perfect.
For a brief moment in the second half, things almost went awry. But then there was Lauri and Rawle, which led to Jake.
Desjardins said he felt the jitters when his name was called, and he checked into the game alongside fellow walk-ons Tyler Trillo and Kory Jones.
“It felt great, man,” Desjardins said. “Once I saw their players come off the court, congratulate each other on a good year, it hit me.”
Last year, Arizona was hit, and it hurt. As a No. 2 seed with Final Four expectations this season, the Wildcats needed to hit back this time, and they did. It’s why Desjardins saw the floor.
Miller often makes sure the Wildcats know not to take anything for granted and that it’s not easy to win, especially in March.
Again, there’s no time for sentiment. It’s win, or go home.
“He was just saying (after the game) how happy he was to move forward in the NCAA Tournament. It’s difficult to win a game, let alone even get here,” said UA point guard Parker-Jackson Cartwright. “We’re 31-4, it may look easy, but it’s really hard.”
Desjardins won’t take this for granted. It’s why he was laughing and jumping and dunking in warm-ups, having a good time.
“I mean,” Desjardins said, “there’s not a bigger stage to have fun on.”
Sure, it’s fun.
But now, as the walk-on said, it gets even more real.