LAS VEGAS — Arizona’s surge in McKale Center North — a.k.a. T-Mobile Arena with Super Bowl MVP and former Wildcat quarterback Nick Foles in attendance — took a while Thursday against Colorado. But all that matters in March is a victory, not style points.
The Wildcats’ 16-2 run in the second half, with Colorado guard McKinley Wright on the bench with what appeared to be a left ankle injury, put them over the top against Colorado in an 83-67 win in a quarterfinal game of the Pac-12 Tournament.
Arizona (25-7) next plays the winner of the Stanford-UCLA game in a semifinal game tomorrow at 7 p.m. Tucson time.
“Obviously, when McKinley Wright went down, that certainly hurt them,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “But I really liked our defense, especially in the second half. Eleven steals might be a season high. We had plenty of transition opportunities because of our defense, and that’s when we are at our best.”
Arizona actually had a season-high 12 steals in the 80-77 loss at Colorado on Jan. 6. But the Wildcats shot only 38.4 percent from the field (28 percent from 3-point range) in that game.
They shot 43.9 percent from the field, and 38.9 percent from beyond the arc today.
Arizona led Colorado (17-15) by only 42-39 with 13:45 left when Dylan Smith made a jump shot. Wright fell behind the Buffaloes’ basket appearing to twist his ankle. He was helped off the court and never returned.
The All-Pac-12 Freshman point guard finished with eight points, five assists and four rebounds.
Arizona went on a 16-2 run afterward to take control of the game with a 58-41 lead with 9:36 left in regulation. Dusan Ristic had eight of his 14 points in the run.
“McKinley’s important to us, there is no doubt about it,” Colorado coach Tad Boyle said. “Our offense stalled at times today, like it has all year. … McKinley goes out. It might take us a while to figure things out offensively, but we weren’t getting any stops.
“They went on that run, and it was kind of all she wrote.”
Arizona’s senior counterpart to Wright, Parker Jackson-Cartwright, played one of his best games of the season with 12 points, four assists and four rebounds.
The game-turning run also included Ristic sticking up for Jackson-Cartwright when Colorado guard Dominique Collier grabbed Jackson-Cartwright’s foot preventing a breakaway layup after the Arizona guard stole the ball.
Boyle was assessed a technical foul. After Allonzo Trier made both free throws following the technical, and Jackson-Cartwright made one of two free throw attempts, Arizona led 55-41 with 10:23 left.
Dusan Ristic with the offensive board and the put-back. He calls for the crowd to get loud. They do. "U of A" chants now.
Asked about how Ristic’s actions fueled the Wildcats, Trier said, “When he’s playing with confidence, it gives us confidence and belief in our basketball team.”
Arizona would lead by as many as 18 points but Colorado trimmed the lead to 73-63 with 2:51 left after Deandre Ayton fouled out 43 seconds earlier.
Ayton finished with one of his worst games — 10 points and six rebounds — making only 4 of 14 shots from the field and 2 of 6 from the free-throw line.
Ayton said he had “butterflies” when he walked on to the court at T-Mobile Arena. “I thought I was in the NBA.”
“I was rushing all my shots,” he added. “I wasn’t taking my time down low.”
After his team beat ASU on Wednesday, Boyle said he was concerned about Arizona’s inside strength with Ayton and Ristic, but it was the Wildcats’ guard play early that set the tone on the way to a 35-33 halftime lead.
Jackson-Cartwright made his first three shots, two from 3-point range, while scoring eight points in the half.
Trier led all scorers in the first half with 12 points on 3-of-5 shooting from the field and 4 of 4 on his free throw attempts. He finished with a game-high 22 points while making all 10 of his free throw attempts.
Trier also made 5 of 9 of his field goal attempts, after going 1 of 10 from the field in his last game at McKale Center against California last Saturday. Miller announced after the game that Trier would forego his senior season and try to play in the NBA.
“The most important thing was closing out the season, winning at McKale, winning an outright Pac-12 championship, but I didn’t lose confidence one bit,” he said.
Allonzo Trier was asked after today’s game if he knows why he’s not a Jerry West Award finalist pic.twitter.com/SJxDTxhEhK
Arizona attempted 38 free throws compared to only 21 for Colorado, a point of emphasis for Boyle after the Wildcats attempted 23 and the Buffaloes only 8 in the Wildcats’ win at McKale Center last month.
The Wildcats made 26 of their free throws, good for only 68.4 percent. They had a 36-27 rebounding edge and only eight turnovers to make up for the shooting woes (only 43.9 percent from the field).
Miller harped on his team’s improved defense as being a difference with Colorado making only one of 10 shots from 3-point range in the second half.
“I thought our ball-screen defense was good,” Miller said. “Our team defense was good. We had a lot of players working together. I didn’t really look at them having a lot of great looks that they missed.
“I think our defense was intact.”
NOTES: Arizona and Colorado are the only programs to have won at least one game in the Pac-12 tournament since the league expanded in 2011-12. … The Wildcats entered the game ranked third nationally with a field goal percentage of 51.0, but they were No. 134 in field goal percentage defense at 43.2. … Colorado freshman PG McKinley Wright’s 20 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds against ASU on Wednesday gave him four double-doubles this season, third of the points-assists variety. He tied the school record for points-assists double-doubles joining Jay Humphries (1982-83 and 1983-84) and Tony Ellis (1996-97). Humphries has the career record with six. … Arizona C Deandre Ayton holds the school freshman record in points (626), rebounds (360), blocked shots (62) and field goal percentage (61.6).
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.