LAS VEGAS – What a luxury to have: if one 7-footer doesn’t have the game you’d expect, another is waiting – and willing – to have yet another strong performance.
Such was the case for Arizona when it comes to Deandre Ayton and Dusan Ristic, Arizona’s Twin Towers that can play near and far from the basket.
Sean Miller called them “team guys” and unselfish players.”
“They’ve clearly formed a bond,” Miller added.
When Ayton was ineffective – rushing his shots, he said – Ristic was willing and urging his team to get going in what was a herky-jerky 83-67 win over Colorado on Thursday at T-Mobile Arena.
“(Ayton) and Dusan have forged a great relationship on the court,” Miller said when asked about the luxury. “They play off each other very well. Both are unselfish. You have to pick your poison in defending them. Both have proven they are very productive and very different.”
Together, they combined for 26 points and 17 rebounds. But in Thursday’s matinee – one that looked like a telenovela a time or two – it was Ristic who was the star. He had 16 points, hitting 5 of 10 shots. He pulled down 11 rebounds and had a one-minute stretch where he looked like an All-American.
“He’s playing his best basketball, being a senior, playing with a lot of confidence,” said teammate Allonzo Trier. “When he’s playing with confidence, it gives us confidence and belief in our basketball team.”
Call it the Serbian Surge. And resurge. He’s now scored 10 or more points in 13 of his last 15 games. In those games, he’s averaging 14.2 points and 7.3 rebounds.
With Arizona up just 46-41 in the second half, Ristic hit a lay-up with 11:50. He hit another with 11:25 left. Thirty seconds later he hit a jumper, scoring six consecutive points for UA to make it 52-41 to give Arizona some breathing room.
In a 16-2 run, Ristic had eight of the points. Ristic’s best move may have been sticking supporting teammate Parker Jackson-Cartwright after Dominique Collier held PJC’s ankle while he was attempting to chase down a loose ball.
Ristic has become feisty like that in the last month. A reporter asked if he liked that “enforcer role.”
“Of course,” Ristic said, “that sometimes brings the whole energy to the whole team. When I have an opportunity to do that, I do it.”
He said he it just happened.
“I don’t know how to describe it,” he said. “It just happens.”
No time like the present to find the inner tough guy. Call it good timing.
For the past month and half, maybe longer, Ristic has been a man on a mission. I can’t remember a guy who has improved so much so fast since maybe A.J. Bramlett (1996-99) or Channing Frye (2003-06). Yes, Ristic has been that good.
“Dusan deserves everything he gets,” said PJC. “How he’s playing is a testament of how hard he works. From day one when he got here, he doesn’t take a day off. His process is really good and when he come on the floor it’s easy for him. This year it’s really showed.”
That was the case again Thursday. Had he not been that good it is likely Arizona would have lost in the first round. Of course, Arizona may have found another way, but you get the picture. With Ayton struggling and eventually fouling out, Ristic saved the day. Ayton played a season-low 25 minutes after fouling out for the third time this season.
“It’s amazing,” Ayton said of how the team feeds off Ristic. “Teams really try to double team me and Dusan down low, but seeing him fight through all that contact and make big plays … that really sparks a fire.”
Can that fire continue? Arizona will clearly need it now that March is upon us.
“If you want to advance in March,” Ristic said, “we have to have everybody playing their best basketball right now. We don’t have two or three months left. This is it. Everybody has to perform at the highest level if you want to make a run in the tournament.”
That’s in the Pac-12 tournament and the all-important NCAA tournament.