Arizona guard Allonzo Trier works around Connecticut guard Antwoine Anderson on his way to scoring a bucket in the first half at McKale Center on Thursday. Trier scored 15 points on 5-for-11 shooting as the Wildcats raised their record to 10-3.
Arizona guard Allonzo Trier draws back for an over-head slam dunk against Connecticut in the second half at McKale Center on Thursday. The Wildcats held a seven-point lead at halftime before letting UConn tie the game in the second half. But the UA responded down the stretch to pick up the school’s first win over the Huskies in six tries.
Sean Miller wasn’t fully aware of Arizona’s winless history against UConn until it finally ended Thursday, and maybe the Arizona coach can be forgiven for that.
He played in the Big East Conference, after all, back when the Huskies were among the powers of that conference, annually making life miserable for teams like Miller’s Pitt Panthers.
“I wasn’t aware of that because I beat them so much when I played” Miller said, smiling, after UA won 73-58 at McKale Center, beating UConn for the first time in six meetings. “I’m just kidding. I’ll get in trouble for that.”
But even though UConn isn’t in the Big East anymore, since the conference underwent some major reconstruction in 2013, and even though the Huskies are struggling at 7-4, there still may have been some history floating around in McKale Center on Thursday.
The Wildcats shot just 40.7 percent in the first half, had star forward Deandre Ayton pick up two early fouls that limited him to seven first-half minutes, and allowed the Huskies to shoot 61 percent in the first 10 minutes of the second half.
Something wasn’t quite right.
“It was a tough game,” Miller said. “There were times when we didn’t play well, and UConn had a lot to do with that.”
Probably the most noticeable thing the Huskies did was throw bodies at Ayton, tough bodies, and show a resilience that’s not always seen from a team that’s now 1-4 against squads from high-major conferences.
Arizona shot a 50 percent from the field and kept UConn to just 40.7 percent but the Wildcats were outrebounded 33-29 while the Huskies converted 10 offensive rebounds for 15 second-chance points.
But the Wildcats responded, eventually.
Arizona took a seven-point halftime lead but fell back into ties at 30 and 36 early in the second half while UConn hit 56.3 percent during the first 10 minutes of the second half. The Huskies also came within a point, 52-51, after Christian Vital hit a 30-foot 3-point shot with 8:07 to go and at 7:11 when Eric Cobb made a layup.
Through the first 12 minutes of the second half, UConn had made 61.1 percent of its field goals including 3 of 4 from 3-point range. The Wildcats hit 57.1 percent but were getting outrebounded 10-5 over the first 12 minutes of the second half.
But Arizona held UConn scoreless for two and a half minutes to change the momentum. The Wildcats took a 60-55 lead with 4:38 left and the Wildcats took a 10-point lead after Allonzo Trier hit a 3-pointer and Rawle Alkins drove through the UConn defense for a layup that made it 65-55 .
Arizona ultimately was too much for UConn this time because it received a double-double from Dusan Ristic, who had 18 points and 10 rebounds while maximizing the space UConn gave him by going after Ayton, and received another 20 points on 6-for-11 shooting from Alkins.
Trier, slightly limited after coming back from a mild knee sprain suffered Monday against North Dakota State, had another 15 points.
Then there was Ayton, who had nine points and seven rebounds but five assists, hitting Parker Jackson-Cartwright for a 3-pointer early in the second half that broke UA out of a 30-30 tie.
Arizona shot 9 for 19 collectively from 3-point range, helping quickly deflate the Huskies zone anytime they threw it out.
“When they went zone, we answered the bell almost every occasion,” Miller said. “And Rawle and Allonzo played a big part of that.”
Trier returned to start Thursday after suffering a mild left knee sprain Monday. UA athletic trainer Justin Kokoskie said before the game it was just a matter of how much Trier could tolerate soreness and that he faced no additional risk in playing on it.
The soreness may have affected Trier’s initial shooting. He missed his first three shots, but he made a layup to break UA out of an 11-11 tie with 10:19 to go and ultimately finished with 15 points on 5-for-11 shooting.
Miller was particularly effusive about Ristic, whom he called one of the hardest-working players he’s had, that work paying off Thursday with a number of crafty post moves and an aggressive streak that was even more pronounced than usual.
In part that may have been because Ristic knew he needed to produce even more with Ayton limited.
“We have a deep team and somebody had to step up,” Ristic said. “That was me. I was the guy tonight.”
The win closed out Arizona’s nonconference season at 10-3 and kept them undefeated in the United States, with all three of their losses coming at their ill-fated Battle 4 Atlantis appearance in the Bahamas during Thanksgiving week.
The Wildcats are scheduled to take four days off for a Christmas break, then return Tuesday to begin preparing for a Dec. 30 Pac-12 opener against ASU at McKale Center.
They are 7-1 in the final game played before taking a Christmas break under Miller, not counting 2012-12, when they played over Christmas in the Diamond Head Classic.