The biggest home nonconference game on Arizona’s schedule, and the NBA-lottery-bound freshman stars on each side, all lived up to their billing Saturday at McKale Center.
It just took a while.
Arizona’s Deandre Ayton set career-highs in points (29 points) and rebounds (18) to help the Wildcats hold off Alabama 88-82 and fellow freshman lottery pick prospect Collin Sexton, who had 30 points, including a buzzer-beating 3-pointer just before halftime.
But the game took nearly two and a half hours, thanks to a total of 48 fouls and 63 free throws taken, and that’s where the Wildcats nearly found trouble.
Although Arizona managed to hold the Crimson Tide to just 38.7 percent shooting, and hit 51.8 percent themselves, the Wildcats made just 22 of 35 free throws (62.9 percent) while Alabama made 24 of 28 from the line. Sexton made 15 of the 16 he took.
But the way Arizona’s Allonzo Trier looked at it, all the fouling was just a consequence of a big-time competition.
“It makes the game really choppy but that was two teams really playing hard, really challenging each other,” Trier said. “It’s part of the game.”
Trier took advantage of it, finding much of his offensive tricks plugged up by the Tide defense but managing to hit 25 points. How? He got to the line 16 times, and hitting 14 free throws.
“Every time I catch it, guys are loaded on me” defensively,” Trier said. “I had only one shot in first half because of the way teams are trying to guard me. And when I catch it, I have to be smart and pick my times.”
Ayton, meanwhile, was simply a force in the post. He made only 4 of 8 free throws but pulled down 18 rebounds, including six offensive rebounds, while hitting 12 of 18 from the field.
“Deandre clearly was the difference,” UA coach Sean Miller said. “I just have a hard time believing there’s anybody better than him. He is a special, special talent. And when the game’s on the line, he rises to the challenge. Deandre’s performance statistically is something you don’t often see in a game like tonight’s.”
Afterward, Ayton was typically cool and confident, too. When told he had nearly two-thirds of Alabama’s rebounding total (of 30) all by himself, Ayton said, “That’s right.”
Ayton and Sexton traded highlights all night long, especially as the game stayed tight throughout the second half.
Arizona held a 79-76 lead heading into the final 2:21, after Ayton broke a 76-76 tie with a layup and by hitting 1 of 2 free throws. From there, Ayton scored twice to give Arizona a 83-77 lead and the Wildcats hung on from there.
The teams stayed within a basket of each other through the middle of the second half, and while Arizona pulled ahead 74-68 after two free throws from Trier, Sexton brought the Tide back within two points, 76-74, on a pair of free throws and a coast-to-coast layup with 4:43 remaining.
After taking a 40-38 lead at halftime, Alabama went ahead by six early in the second half, getting two free throws from Sexton and a pair of baskets from center Donta Hall, who went coast-to-coast for a layup.
Sexton later hit a 3-pointer to give Alabama a 51-45 lead but picked up his third foul on the Wildcats’ ensuing possession, and a jumper from Brandon Randolph cut the Tide’s lead to 51-49.
Even though Arizona kept Sexton scoreless for over 11 minutes to start the game, Sexton’s heroics were no surprise to Trier.
“Anytime a guy’s gonna be that aggressive and they’re putting him in position to get the ball every time, he’s going to get his eventually,” Trier said. “He put a lot of pressure on us. That’s what good players do.”
The Wildcats and their fans also celebrated the return of sophomore forward Rawle Alkins, who made his season debut after suffering a broken foot on Sept. 26. Alkins entered the game after three minutes to a loud ovation, and finished with seven points and two rebounds in 22 minutes.
Alkins didn’t score until 8:59 was left in the half, but had two assists in his first five minutes played, including a dish from under the basket back to Dusan Ristic, who made the layup.
Alkins’ first score was a free throw that gave the Wildcats their biggest lead of the first half, 24-13. Arizona built the lead in part by keeping Alabama under 40 percent shooting for the first 13 minutes of the game and keeping Alabama’s Sexton scoreless for the first 11:45 of the game before he scored on a driving layup.
While Alkins was clearly not in top form after his layoff, Miller and Trier both spoke enthusiastically about his return and what he’ll bring the team in the future.
“He gives our team a confidence and a smile,” Miller said. “The first game (back) is the hardest and he’ll really settle in as we move forward.”
The win moved Arizona to 7-3 and gave the Wildcats an argument for reinstatement in the AP Top 25 poll after also beating seventh-ranked Texas A&M in Phoenix on Tuesday. Alabama dropped to 7-3.
The Wildcats are now 4-0 since their 0-3 performance in the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas, a performance Miller said he does not want them to forget.
“Nobody has to remind us we have lost three games in the Bahamas,” Miller said.
“But instead of dwelling on that as a negative, we want it to (keep it in mind) because we want to point at it as we’re not the same team as then.”