Not long after the 7-foot-1 freshman led No. 17 Arizona to Thursday night’s 77-70 win over Arizona State, Bobby Hurley was asked how he prepared for such a player.
“None of my walk-ons could do that,” Hurley said. “After competing against him twice, he may be the best big that I’ve seen in college as a player and as a coach in terms of his future and his upside. And he’s just scratching the surface of what he’ll be.”
In front of a sold-out crowd of 14,233 at Wells Fargo Arena, the No. 25 Sun Devils played well enough to win. They stormed back from an 18-point deficit. They surged to an early seven-point second-half advantage. But as the minutes ticked away, the best player on the court – and in the Pac-12 – took over, and ASU had no counter.
After a somewhat quiet first half, Ayton had 17 points, 14 rebounds and three assists – in the second half alone. He finished with 25 points, 16 rebounds (eight offensive), four assists and three blocked shots. He shot 8 of 12 from the field and 9 of 12 from the foul line.
What was it that Arizona coach Sean Miller said this week? That the team goes as Deandre goes? This was Exhibit A. Or if you’re counting the entire season, Exhibit AA.
“It wasn’t always pretty,” Miller said after the first-place Wildcats improved to 21-6 and 11-3 in the Pac-12. “We played through some rough patches. … Deandre was a dominant player. A lot of guys played well, but he was the difference.”
Greg Moore and Doug Haller on Deandre Ayton and Arizona’s big win over Arizona State.
ASU dropped to 19-7 and 7-7. Senior guard Kodi Justice scored to knot the contest 63-63 with 3:53 left, but Ayton responded with the game’s biggest plays to seal the win.
First, he tipped in a Dusan Ristic miss to give the Wildcats the lead. Then, after ASU’s Romello White misfired, the freshman big man took a pass at the elbow. The Sun Devils came with a double team, but Ayton remained patient.
“I’ve been doubled and tripled my whole career, so I know how to pass out of it, pretty much,” Ayton said.
Behind him, teammate Allonzo Trier called for the ball.
Trier: “I was calling for it, telling him, ‘Find me, Find me.’ He found me. I knew it was going up and I knew it was going in.”
Justice: “I mean, he’s 7-1. We’re trapping with somebody 6-5, 6-4, so he can see right over us.”
Ayton: “Allonzo called for the ball and I passed it. I know how he plays. We’re the best duo in college basketball, so we know each other’s (game).”
Ayton played 38 minutes, including all 20 of the second half.
“He doesn’t get that tired,” Hurley said. “We kind of had him on the perimeter, running him around on ball screens, thinking it might be easier for our guards to go by, but he holds his own on defense away from the basket.”
Trier added 19 points and five assists for Arizona, which denied Hurley his first rival win in six tries. Ristic added 12 points and 10 rebounds. The Wildcats shot 19 of 34 inside the 3-point arc, collecting 12 second-chance points in the second half. They were 21 of 27 from the foul line.
For ASU, senior guard Tra Holder had 20 points. Justice added 19. Sophomore forward Mickey Mitchell contributed six points, four rebounds, three assists and three steals before fouling out. The Sun Devils shot 42.4 percent, making 7 of 25 from 3.
“We really got tentative when we got in foul trouble,” said Justice, noting that three of ASU’s post players played most of the second half with four fouls.
Senior guard Kodi Justice reacts after his team’s 77-70 loss at home to the Arizona Wildcats. Justice had 19 points in the rivalry game.
A significant factor: ASU made just 7 of 12 from the foul line, both season lows. The Sun Devils were 1 of 6 in the second half.
“They murdered us at the free-throw line,” Hurley said. “That really was the difference. They were plus-14. Some of those were them stepping up and making them.”
It was a crazy night. Famed boxing ring announcer Michael Buffer introduced the Sun Devils during pre-game warm-ups. Officials ejected an Arizona cheerleader in the second half. The crowd – about 85 percent wearing ASU gold – was as loud as it’s been all season.
“This is what college basketball should feel like,” Miller said. “It was a tremendous atmosphere.”
The Wildcats hit 8 of their first 10, running up a 33-15 lead, ASU’s biggest deficit of the season. The Sun Devils responded. Justice authored a 9-0 run to help pull them within 39-38 at halftime. ASU then scored the first eight of the second half, completing an amazing 31-6 push for a 46-39 lead.
Miller called time. The Wildcats regrouped. They got the ball to the best player on the court. And when they didn’t, Ayton went and got it off the glass.
ASU had no answer.
“This was a big road win for us,” Miller said, “but now it’s on to the next one.”