LAS VEGAS — Before he raced onto the playing floor Thursday afternoon, Deandre Ayton looked around gigantic T-Mobile Arena, surrounded by open space and what he called “crazy” nosebleed seats, then felt the sort of emotion not befitting of his cyborg-like reputation.
“I had butterflies,” Ayton said.
“Today in this big arena? Oh yeah,” Ayton said after Arizona beat Colorado 83-67 in the Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinals. “I thought I was in the NBA for a second when I was in the tunnel.”
Of course, Ayton will be in the NBA soon enough, maybe as the No. 1 draft pick. But his emotion, and his less-than-dominant play Thursday, proved a couple of things.
One, that Ayton is actually human.
And two, that it’s sometimes OK for the Wildcats if he is.
After all, Arizona wasn’t picked the No. 3 team in the preseason just because of its dominant Bahamian big man. Six of the 10 players Arizona coach Sean Miller put on the court Thursday have been mentioned in an NBA mock draft at one point or another, so it’s clear they have talent.
On Thursday, that talent produced double-figure scoring at every starting spot while collectively holding Colorado to 5 for 20 3-point shooting and outrebounding the Buffs 36-27 overall.
That Ayton had “just” 10 points, six rebounds and three blocks, while fouling out after 25 minutes, was secondary.
Dusan Ristic posted his seventh double-double of the season with 16 points and 11 rebounds, and Parker Jackson-Cartwright had three 3-pointers, four assists and three steals. Allonzo Trier led Arizona in scoring with 22 points in part by shooting 10 of 10 from the line.
“It was an example of how we should play from this point on,” Ristic said. “That we still managed to get a win, despite Deandre’s fouls, shows how deep we are as a team. We have other players who can impact the game.”
The win moved Arizona (25-7) into a Pac-12 Tournament semifinal game on Friday at 7 p.m. The Wildcats will face UCLA, an 88-77 winner over Stanford in another quarterfinal Thursday.
But, as it was for the two previous games that Arizona and Colorado (17-15) split this season, it wasn’t always easy for the Wildcats. Arizona led by only two points at halftime, and by four with under 14 minutes left before dynamic Colorado point guard McKinley Wright badly twisted his ankle and Arizona capitalized on a CU technical foul to go ahead by 14 with just over 10 minutes left.
Then again, no matter how difficult, it was only basketball, something the Wildcats have only gradually been able to sink into after an emotional two weeks that began with Trier’s PED suspension and an ESPN report that said Miller discussed paying Ayton $100,000.
That was also when Ayton felt some emotion.
“I laughed at it at first,” Ayton said of ESPN’s report. “I’ve seen other schools and other guys (named as part of the federal investigation) and I was like, ‘Wow.’ Then I saw my name and that was unbelievable.”
An attorney UA hired issued a statement Feb. 25 saying Ayton has consistently maintained he never took a payment or benefit to attend Arizona and that “not a shred of evidence” has indicated otherwise.
Thursday marked Ayton’s first public comments since the report. Postseason guidelines require all teams to open their locker rooms, win or lose.
So, with a small media crowd gathering around him, Ayton took a seat and finally was able to describe the ordeal.
“It was crazy, man,” he said. “I just shut it out and just called my mom and told her what was on and she was freaking on it. We’ll get to the bottom of this.
“She’s praying, I can tell you that.”
What happened the day after the report broke made things even stranger. Oregon fans booed Ayton every time he touched the ball, waving six-figure cardboard “checks” at him and the far-reaching ESPN cameras alike. Ayton responded with 28 points and 18 rebounds, though the Ducks beat Arizona in overtime, 98-93. Miller was away from the team in what he and the UA called a mutual decision, leaving Ayton and his teammates to deal with the noise.
“It was all eyes were on me, and I’m gonna put on a show,” Ayton said. “I’m an entertainer. I like to entertain. That’s what I did.
“I mean, it’s been going on my whole life so it’s just a little more attention.”
Even if some fans, like the ones in Eugene, view Ayton as the bad guy.
“That’s on them,” Ayton said. “I don’t care. I tried to prove a point but we didn’t get the win. I wish we got the win.”
Five days later, after Miller delivered a forceful rebuttal to ESPN’s story, McKale Center fans warmly welcomed Miller and Ayton back for home games against Stanford and California.
Ayton felt every bit of that, too.
“That means somebody had my back, other than my mother,” Ayton said. “I actually have a family down in Tucson.”