Deandre Ayton walked in the Arizona locker room before Thursday’s game, and Sean Miller said “it was almost like he could play” for the Wildcats right then and there.
But he couldn’t, of course. Ayton’s kinda busy with that obligation he gave the Phoenix Suns after they made him the No. 1 pick in last June’s NBA Draft.
So without Ayton and the four other starters who helped win the Pac-12 regular-season and tournament titles last season, the Wildcats have had to do it a different way.
But in a 64-56 win over Colorado on Thursday, in which they struggled at times in the second half, they still managed to send a message that maybe they can do it a different way ... and still defend that title.
Sure, there’s a largely new cast of players at Arizona but the Wildcats are also playing in a league that is largely in disarray anyway, a point that was driven home earlier Thursday with the news that Utah knocked off ASU in Tempe.
“It’s up for grabs,” said Brandon Williams, who led the Wildcats with 14 points and six assists. “I think everybody sees that. We’ve got to be ready every game.”
Brandon Williams says the Pac-12 is “up for grabs” this year. pic.twitter.com/24apxYgvhe— The Wildcaster (@TheWildcaster) January 4, 2019
On a night when backcourt mate Justin Coleman was limited to four ineffective minutes because of a shoulder he dislocated in practice Monday, Williams led a long list of teammates who still managed to get it done somehow.
What was probably most surprising was that freshman Devonaire Doutrive tied his season-high in scoring with eight points off the bench while collecting a season high four rebounds — three on the offensive end — despite having been in and out of Miller’s rotation all season.
Doutrive only played one minute over three games in the Maui Invitational, not at all at Alabama on Dec. 9 and only four minutes in UA’s less-than-impressive nonconference finale against UC Davis.
But he made the most of his time on the court Thursday.
“I’m just ready whenever my number’s called,” Doutrive said. “I feel confident out there.”
Joining Doutrive on the postgame interview podium, Williams complimented Doutrive for his patience and offensive rebounding Thursday, which helped the Wildcats minimize Colorado’s expected advantage on the glass.
Entering the game as the seventh-best defensive rebounding team in the country, as defined by percentage of opponents’ missed shots it collects, the Buffaloes outrebounded UA 36-30 overall but lost battles elsewhere on the court.
The Wildcats made just 1 of 10 3-pointers in the second half, shot 43.1 percent overall and were outrebounded 36-30. But UA scored 14 points off 17 Colorado turnovers and outscored CU in the paint 38-18.
The win moved Arizona to 10-4 overall and 1-0 in the Pac-12. Colorado dropped to 9-4 and 0-1.
Up by 15 at halftime, UA maintained a comfortable lead early in the second half despite missing the first five 3-pointers it tried after halftime. The Wildcats hit a scoreless drought of 4:22 late in the second half, allowing Colorado to cut their lead to just 54-45 with 5:22 left, but a 3-pointer from Dylan Smith put the Wildcats back up by double digits with five minutes left.
Colorado later cut it to seven on a 3-pointer from D’Shawn Schwartz with 2:47 left but Brandon Randolph hit a jumper and the Wildcats maintained more than a two-possession lead the rest of the way.
“The first 20 minutes were among our best of the year,” Miller said. “Without Justin Coleman at the forefront, that made us feel really good. But we had trouble putting two halves together. We had some plays that were head-scratchers through the last 20 minutes.
"In the first half, Arizona shot 51.6 percent from the field and outrebounded Colorado 16-13 to take a 39-24 halftime lead.
Colorado took an 11-6 early lead when it hit 5 of 6 shots to begin the game and took an early 4-1 rebounding edge over the Wildcats. But Arizona had 3-pointers from Ryan Luther and Brandon Randolph to help pull into a 14-13 lead with 11:34 left, then took a 19-13 lead after Doutrive hit two free throws, Williams made a three-point play.
The run eventually ended at 20-4, with UA taking a 31-17 lead on a layup from Williams with 4:37 to go.
Miller didn’t play Coleman at all in the second half, after his four-minute spell contained a passing turnover that might have been related to shoulder pain (Miller said he wasn’t sure if it affected Coleman but that it appeared in his team’s best interests to let other play the rest of the way.
Miller said he was happy the Wildcats were able to hang on through the second half and “move on,” but they’ll have to do so quickly: Utah comes into McKale off its 96-86 upset win at ASU for a noon game Saturday.
“We’re going to play against a very confident team and we have to be ready,” Miller said. “We don’t have a big margin for error.”