TEMPE – Arizona coach Sean Miller said at some point you just hope it all clicks. At some point it has to, right?
And sometimes, Allonzo Trier said, you have to take your lumps to learn.
So, here we are 27 games into the season and No. 17 Arizona (21-6) has looked pretty good the last two games after a head-scratching loss to UCLA last week. Two-game winning streaks at Arizona aren’t usually something to get all giddy about, but Arizona’s last two does help in getting right at the right time. Even Miller said he thought Arizona may have turned a corner, calling it “a great win.”
To wit: UA looked pretty good for about 25 minutes against a tough ASU team in front of a frenzied crowd, winning 77-70 at Wells Fargo Arena. And every minute mattered, particularly in the final minutes where Arizona outscored ASU 16-9 in the last four.
“Our guys know how to win,” Miller said when asked about the team’s composure in the final minutes. “We’ve won a lot of ball games.”
It had everything. World famous Michael Buffer announced ASU’s lineup, an Arizona male cheerleader was escorted out midway through the game, major offensive runs by each team and Deandre Ayton admitting the curtain of distraction was, um, actually distracting.
Thursday night it was like a crash course in crazy and, well, survival. Arizona had a commanding lead at 33-15 with 7:33 left in the first half, looking like one of the best teams in the country for a moment.
“That first 10-11 minutes is as good as an opponent has played against us both ends of the floor,” Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley said. “We were in trouble there.”
Then, trouble shifted. By 17:14 of the second half, Arizona was down 46-39 to look like, well, not like the best team in the Pac-12.
It was a 31-6 haboob in the night by ASU. Arizona’s defense was dust and debris.
“I could tell we were a little tired,” Ayton said. “We were getting beat up a little bit. Our transition defense wasn’t up to par. We just needed energy.”
It came in the form of a better-than-usual defense from Arizona and its 7-foot-1 clean sweeper in Ayton, who eventually turned another routine night into a game of the ages. He finished with 25 points and 16 rebounds and three blocks.
“I thought Deandre was certainly a player I haven’t seen play a whole lot in my lifetime,” said Miller. “He was a dominant player. A lot of our other guys played well but he was the difference.”
Ayton said it was all about effort, especially in the second half where he had 17 points and 14 rebounds.
“Coach told me to give great effort on both ends of the floor,” Ayton said. “As I go this team goes, give myself on defense and the offense will come.”
And it came – in droves. It was a half where Arizona seemingly went to him in every possession and he came through.
“I really didn’t have a chance to go one on one,” he said. “My effort on the offensive glass really showed.”
That was ASU’s plan – and yet its plan didn’t work. Thursday night, size mattered. Arizona was just too big behind Ayton.
“I just think overall that their size wore on us,” Hurley said. “The offensive rebounds hurt, the tip-ins hurt, things like that.”
And a big thing called Ayton.
“None of my walk-ons can do that,” Hurley said when asked about trying to replicate Ayton in practice. “He’s a special player. After competing against him twice, I think he may be the best big I’ve seen in college as a player or coach. He’s just scratching the surface of what he’ll be in the future. He doesn’t get that tired either. We had him on the perimeter running around on ball screens but he stayed in there. He’s got a great future, obviously.”
What does it all mean?
“We’re getting better. We are learning a lot,” said Trier, who had 19 points, five assists and three steals to help Arizona win. “Every time we fall we learn some more about ourselves and it’s good. It teaches you lessons. That’s one thing I’ll say. It’s not always what you want but sometimes you need it.
“Obviously, we haven’t wanted that many lessons this year but we’re learning every time we step on the court.”