LAS VEGAS — The Pac-12 tournament became the Deandre Ayton Invitational the last couple of days and the two Los Angeles schools came from the big city and got big-timed by the big fella.
Arizona coach Sean Miller called Ayton a “one-man wrecking crew here the last two days.”
Following a 32-point, 14-rebound performance against UCLA, Ayton, a freshman phenom unlike any other in Wildcat history, dominated USC with 32 points and 18 rebounds in the Pac-12 tournament championship game tonight at T-Mobile Arena.
Arizona (27-7) now sets its sight on the NCAA tournament following the 75-61 victory over USC.
The 64-point, 32-rebound two-day total has to rank as the top postseason sequence of games in Arizona history.
For some reason, the youthful and charismatic Ayton introduced himself to reporters waiting for him at the locker room as “Josh.” “I just feel like a Josh,” he said when asked why he is now Josh.
“Josh” never had it so good.
“I just want to win. That’s about it,” said a humble Ayton. “I’ll do whatever it takes to win. I give my all.”
The play of Ayton and Ristic — who tallied 16 points on 8-of-13 shooting — allowed Arizona to mask its deficiencies on the perimeter for most of the game against Trojans.
When Ayton and Ristic got the ball on the blocks, good things usually happened. If Arizona passed the ball around the perimeter, waiting for a perimeter shot as the shot clock wound down, bad things usually happened.
That was until senior sparkplug Parker Jackson-Cartwright nailed a 3-pointer at the shot-clock buzzer with 10:15 remaining that put Arizona ahead 49-43, the Wildcats’ largest lead at the time.
“I just try to lock myself in on making plays to unite us,” said Jackson-Cartwright, who didn’t make the all-tournament team but should have considering how vital he was against Colorado’s McKinley Wright, UCLA’s Aaron Holiday and USC’s Jordan McLaughlin.
“Whether it be a steal, a rebound, a big three … just anything that can get our guys going, it’s just what I want to do,” Jackson-Cartwright continued. “I want to win games and whatever it takes is what March is about.”
Jackson-Cartwright had 10 points, five assists and two turnovers against USC. In the Pac-12 tournament, he had 35 points, 13 assists and only five turnovers in a combined 105 minutes.
This kind of production from a point guard national media types have said is not enough to carry Arizona to a national title. So far, so good, this postseason. Now comes the toughest test with the NCAA tournament.
The support he has from Miller is immeasurable. Before the last seconds ticked off the clock, Jackson-Cartwright made it a point to break away from a player celebration to approach Miller and give him a hand shake and a hug before Miller shook the hand of USC coach Andy Enfield.
Miller’s recent tribulations with the ESPN story alleging a conversation with an agent runner about a $100,000 payment for Ayton became distant at that point, overcome by the emotions of the substantial three-day run for Jackson-Cartwright and the Wildcats in Las Vegas.
“It’s been four years, with a lot of ups and downs,” said Jackson-Cartwright, who started only 16 games in the previous three seasons before starting all 31 this season. “We did it together. He’s believed in me since Day One, since he brought me here, and I owe him a lot. I just wanted to play hard for him, and we got it done for him.”
With USC post player Chimezie Metu on the bench with his fourth foul already, Arizona penetrated past the Trojans’ 2-3 zone without resistance allowing Alkins to electrify the T-Mobile Arena with a thunderous dunk over USC’s Elijah Stewart with 9:29 left giving the Wildcats a 51-46 lead.
The poster dunk electrified the crowd and awed his teammates like no other time before.
“Oh man, it was a great feeling,” said Alkins, who finished with six points before fouling out. “I was having a rough game from the beginning. To get that dunk to fall, it’s kind of like everybody forgot about that. It was a great feeling.”
Ayton ran to Alkins after the thunderous dunk. Ayton said he and told him, “Man, you need to go to jail for that. There’s no way somebody should get away with that. I turned around and the dude (Stewart) was on the floor. I was like, ‘Oh, my God.'”
YOU JUST GOT POSTERIZED.
Ayton slammed in an alley-oop dunk on Arizona’s next possession, forcing Enfield to call a timeout with 8:49 left and the Wildcats leading 53-46.
“When they started throwing lobs over the top and hitting transition threes … it was basically like we were in Tucson again, the whole area was filled with U of A fans, so they got loud,” USC guard Jonah Mathews said.
Metu returned and Arizona kept attacking with another alley-oop slam by Ayton giving the Wildcats a 59-49 lead with 5:46 left, making Enfield call another timeout.
In the first half, Arizona’s guards, especially Alkins, Allonzo Trier and Dylan Smith, suffered what appeared to be a hangover from the UCLA game the night before.
The trio combined for only six points on 2-of-9 shooting from the field, 1 of 7 from 3-point range, and four turnovers.
Ristic and Ayton kept the Wildcats close to USC, which miraculously led by only 33-30 at halftime. Ayton and Ristic combined for 21 points on 10-of-16 shooting from the field with 11 rebounds by halftime, helping to set the table for the second half dunkfest.
Miller was especially appreciative of his seniors Jackson-Cartwright and Ristic.
“There’s been some amazing great players that have played at the University of Arizona,” Miller said. “Not all of them have been fortunate to have won three regular season championships and three Pac-12 tournament championships. Parker and Dusan have done that.”
NOTES: Dusan Ristic increased his Arizona career victories record to 115 and Parker Jackson-Cartwright is now tied for second with Kaleb Tarczewski and Matt Muehlebach at 110. … Arizona went 13 years without winning a conference tournament title before capturing the Pac-12 tournament championship in 2015. It has now won the championship three out of the last four years under Sean Miller. … Jackson-Cartwright went from defending Colorado’s Pac-12 All-Freshman guard McKinley Wright to UCLA’s All-Pac-12 guard Aaron Holiday to USC’s Bob Cousy Award finalist Jordan McLaughlin. He outplayed them all with the most important achievement — victory.