LAS VEGAS — Deandre Ayton was the headline from Friday night. Of course, he was. From Yahoo, to CBSSports.com, to The Athletic, to USA Today, Ayton was the natural, national, talking point from Arizona’s overtime victory over UCLA in a Pac-12 tournament semifinal.
For me, the story was Parker Jackson-Cartwright.
While Ayton’s 34-point, 14-rebound effort was remarkable, even for him, it’s not like nobody could see that coming. He’s a given.
What hasn’t been a given is the play of Jackson-Cartwright, the senior point guard who — at least through two games of the Pac-12 tournament — has been a bit unleashed by coach Sean Miller. Be ready to shoot, the coach told him. Be aggressive. I believe in you to hound Aaron Holiday.
Factoring in the competition and the stakes, Jackson-Cartwright responded with the best game of his career Friday night with an efficient 11 points, making 3 of 5 3-pointers, with four assists and only one turnover in a frenetic game. But what really stood out is how PJC buzzed around in Holiday’s airspace, holding him to 15 points on 5 of 20 shooting.
Parker Jackson-Cartwright on his matchup vs. UCLA's Aaron Holiday. pic.twitter.com/lPd2c6j4jZ
“His defense was the key tonight,” said center Dusan Ristic.
“He did a great job defending Aaron Holiday, one of the best players in the conference. He didn’t have a good game and the reason for that was Parker. He was unbelievable. Parker was the reason why we won tonight.”
Jackson-Cartwright will have to do it again Saturday night against USC — and star guard Jordan McLaughlin — in the Pac-12 tournament championship game. Can PJC do it again?
“Before coming into this tournament, my confidence was at an all-time high,” he said.
That stems from Miller, he said.
“Him being back has really brought my confidence up,” Jackson-Cartwright said.
When the coach returned from a one-game absence and missing multiple practices in the wake of an ESPN report alleging discussion of a payment to a recruit, he had a message for Jackson-Cartwright.
Parker Jackson-Cartwright on Deandre Ayton: 'Special … unselfish.' pic.twitter.com/m1n6Q4HeIz
One of those was to have his feet ready to shoot when the ball is kicked back out to him beyond the 3-point line.
“Just shoot when I’m open,” he said.
And another message was to trust Jackson-Cartwright defensively.
“Coach challenged me,” Jackson-Cartwright said.
“He gave me that matchup and said in the first game (a UCLA victory in McKale Center) I should have guarded (Holiday) the whole game. I take it personal when he puts me on guys. …
“I think I have accomplished a lot in my career and I know what I can do on the floor. I never doubted my ability. When I face up against great guards, it just brings out the best in me.”
Jackson-Cartwright admits that his confidence did slip at times this season, and he’s sometimes been a reluctant shooter when that happens. He doesn’t need to score a lot for this team but he needs to be a threat that the defense must account for. He needs to let it fly with confidence and continue to be a pest on defense.
It’s now or never for the senior.
“In March,” he said, “you have to give your all.”