With confetti dropping all around, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott handed the “cyborg” of Pac-12 basketball a trophy the size of a Nerf ball Saturday night.
The mini trophy said “Most Outstanding Player, 2018 Pac-12 Tournament.”
I thought: is that a counterfeit trophy? Did they lose the real one?
When you score 64 combined points to beat UCLA and USC, when you grab 32 rebounds and attack the Bruins and Trojans with the subtleness of a boa constrictor, the Most Outstanding Player trophy should be a Whopper.
Instead, over two extraordinary nights at T-Mobile Arena, Deandre Ayton became the Next Big Thing in college basketball. Now everybody from Virginia to Villanova should know.
On Saturday night in the Valley of Sin, it would’ve taken more than a prayer for USC to beat Arizona. Ayton was that good. The Wildcats put team before ego, made sure Ayton got the ball whenever possible, and in the final 10 minutes USC would’ve needed a trampoline or stilts to do anything about it.
To celebrate the Pac-12 Tournament championship the Wildcats and their fans blew off some steam and then blew out the Trojans, 75-61.
In unprecedented numbers, maybe 15,000 — larger than the capacity of McKale Center — UA fans spilled out of Las Vegas’ pubs and clubs and made so much noise Saturday that T-Mobile Arena sounded like the world yodeling championships.
On Saturday morning, those UA fans who had been stuck at work during Arizona’s opening victories over Colorado and UCLA, drove Highway 93 almost bumper-to-bumper, through Wickenburg and Wikieup, all to get one last look at college basketball’s singular star, Deandre Ayton.
It was Showtime.
“I’ve been working on my game,” he said in the understatement of the college basketball season. “The hard work paid off.”
The Wildcats played so well in the final 10 minutes, breaking open a 46-43 game, that every bracketologist in college basketball must’ve heard the thunder coming from the team that had been forgotten and all but written off in November.
No, the Wildcats won’t be a No. 1 seed. But no No. 1 seed would want to play them now that Ayton has been fully introduced.
“He’s a big guy and very skilled,” said USC’s 6-11 Nick Rakocevic, who was responsible for guarding Ayton much of the night. “Me and Chimezie (Metu) tried to do everything we could just to contain him, although he went off tonight.”
Arizona out-rebounded the Trojans 42-19, and if you’re tempted to say it was all because of a size advantage, you would be wrong. Have you ever seen Dusan Ristic work so hard at rebounding, or pursue second-chance balls under the basket?
“We played unbelievably hard,” said Ristic, who outplayed both Rakocevic and Metu, two very tall men who were in over their heads Saturday. “In the second half, our defense was amazing.”
It almost makes you chuckle. Sean Miller spent the first 25 games of the season verbally assaulting his team’s lack of defensive effort.
But little by little, the Wildcats responded.
There’s no Rondae Hollis-Jefferson on this team, no defensive stopper, but the three teams Arizona beat at the T-Mobile Arena were unable to shoot well from 3-point distance, which is the most telling statistic of March basketball
Combined, Colorado, UCLA and USC shot 31 percent on 3-balls.
Who said this Arizona team couldn’t guard a turtle?
In addition, point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright was superb. He was the best point guard in the tournament and it’s a joke that he didn’t make the All-Tournament team. PJC averaged 11.8 points, had 14 assists and just five turnovers, and shot 50 percent from 3-point distance, making 8 of 16 shots.
It was his 3-ball with 10:15 remaining that ignited Arizona’s 7-0 run — which included emphatic dunks by Ayton and Rawle Alkins — that ended USC’s chances for its second-ever conference tournament championship.
“Coach Miller challenged me to take leadership up here and I rose to the challenge,” said the man with the hyphenated name.
“Those final minutes is all it takes and especially in March. If you step on somebody’s neck, you don’t give them any hope.”
In a weird way, it was fitting that Arizona and USC met for the championship.
Both teams went eyeball-to-eyeball with FBI investigators in September. Both teams fired their top recruiter/assistant coach. Both got off to unimaginably bad starts and tumbled from the Top 10 by mid-December. Arizona lost to SMU. The Trojans lost to Princeton.
Arizona played without Alkins for almost two months.
USC played without star forward Bennie Boatwright for much of the year, including March.
Finally, both rebuilt their résumés and their egos and met one last time for the league title. The only difference was their approach.
USC coach Andy Enfield talked about coming close.
“We had a three-point lead at halftime in the Pac-12 championship game,” he said. “With 10 minutes to go, it was a tie game. That’s what you play for.”
But if you’re Arizona, that’s not what play for. You play to win, not to say you were able to keep up with USC or anybody for 30 minutes.
A lot of that is predictable. USC has won a single conference tournament, 2009, and only one Pac-10/12 regular season title, 1985. By comparison, Arizona has won 16 regular-season titles and seven conference tournaments.
As PJC said, you know how important it is not to give a team like USC any hope.
“Things were pretty crazy for some of the year,” said Jackson-Cartwright. “But in the end we got to where we wanted to be.”