SALT LAKE CITY —
Rawle Alkins said the pain in his broken index finger was an 8.5 on a scale of 1 to 10.
“It was crooked, turned sideways,” he said, crunching up his face. “I looked at it and thought, ‘Oh, man, this can’t be good.”’
In a sword-swift moment, the burden on his team multiplied. Arizona trailed Saint Mary’s 17-12. Jock Landale and the Gaels had made the Wildcats come off as the Apple Dumpling Gang.
Jock looked to be a lock.
Without their enforcer for the final 30 minutes, minus the toughness of the A-Train, the Wildcats might’ve been cooked.
Alkins jogged with UA trainer Justin Kokoskie to the locker room, no more than 15 yards from the team bench. It’s unclear who groaned louder: UA fans or Alkins. The Gaels would grow their lead to 22-12.
Admit it. You and everyone in front of a TV set in Tucson freaked out.
That’s when medical science kicked in.
Kokoskie took a picture of Alkins’ finger and emailed it to a Tucson hand surgeon in maybe the time it took for a rotation of the 30-second shot clock. Then Kokoskie, Alkins and team physician Dr. Donald Porter took advantage of the Utah Jazz’s NBA-level medical resources and took an X-ray of Alkins’ finger.
They quickly emailed the image to the hand surgeon.
“You could see the fracture, a little piece of bone disconnected from where it should’ve been,” Kokoskie said. “It was broken.”
On the bench, UA assistant coach Book Richardson tried to convince himself Alkins would return and the Wildcats would somehow chop up Saint Mary’s lead.
“I kept thinking, ‘He’ll be all right, he’ll be all right,’” Richardson said 90 minutes later. “But deep inside I had doubts Rawle would be all right. Most people wouldn’t come back from that.”
Racing the clock but abiding by their professional training, Porter and Kokoskie consulted with the surgeon and determined Alkins could safely return.
Not Tuesday or Thursday, but right now.
Alkins was back in the game with 3:43 remaining in the first half. His team was shooting a dreadful 26 percent. That’s RFD — recipe for disaster — territory in March.
Amazingly, with his right index and middle finger taped together, Alkins drove to the bucket and banked in a game-changing layup 77 seconds after he returned.
Talk about feeling no pain.
“It’s the miracle of medical science,” Kokoskie said with a big smile after Arizona overhauled and beat up the Gaels 69-60, outscoring them 53-36 upon Alkins’ return.
Arizona won Saturday night for many reasons, especially Lauri Markkanen’s ability to block shots, draw fouls and make nine free throws, and also Allonzo Trier’s clutchness. Is that a word? If not, it should be. Trier scored all 14 of his points in the final 17 minutes.
Ultimately, the Wildcats were too big for Jock the Lock and his teammates, who ended the game like someone who just finished an overtime shift, exhausted, loosely holding their empty lunchpails.
Landale opened the game making five consecutive shots. He ended on a 3-for-9 streak.
Arizona shot 59 percent in the second half. You don’t often lose when you do that in March. More importantly, you usually don’t lose when you look at a 22-12 deficit and don’t swallow your tongue.
“We had another whole half,” said UA senior Kadeem Allen, who was terrific with 12 points, three steals and a late thunder-dunk that helped to change the game.
“What we do,” said Richardson, “is play four 5-minute wars each half. We lost the first three wars, but then we won the fourth and that got us going. In the second half, we got a fifth war and a sixth. You don’t have to do it all at once.”
Saturday’s game was almost a duplicate of Arizona’s by-the-seat-of-its-pants opener in the 1997 NCAA Tournament, trailing slow-paced South Alabama by 10 points in the final seven minutes. The Wildcats ultimately won 65-57 and 10 days later were in the Final Four.
You wonder if escaping Saint Mary’s pesky tactics will lead to a similar opportunity.
Gaels coach Randy Bennett knows more about Gonzaga than any coach who isn’t named Mark Few; his team was 0-3 against the Zags this season. Asked to compare Arizona to Gonzaga, about a potential Elite Eight game in San Jose on Saturday, Bennett made several funny faces and then said, “It’s a pretty even game.”
But he did say that Arizona’s ability to stop Landale, and those like him, might be more essential than the oft-quoted “guards get you to the Final Four” formula.
“Arizona can wear you out (inside),” said Bennett, allowing that the Markkanen-Dusan Ristic-Chance Comanche rotation is a blessed resource. “To be good, you need to have that.
“When you get down to the last 32 or 16 teams, the other team is going to have some quality big guys. There’s going to be a Landale or a Markkanen or a Przemek Karnowski (of Gonzaga). Those guys are why their teams are still in there.”
Over 72 hours in Salt Lake City, the Wildcats proved that they have more than three big guys. They’ve also got Alkins, who has drawn a lot of laughs this month by using the term “savage life” to describe the way he goes about business.
On Saturday, when Arizona had so much to lose and the Gaels so much to gain, Alkins wasn’t as much a savage as he was a force breathing life back into his team.
Do you know the way to San Jose? Arizona does.