Going up against a frontcourt that looked like it could start at a local high school, Deandre Ayton easily lived up to the hype as one of the nation’s top freshmen in his unofficial debut with the Arizona Wildcats.
The 7-foot-1 freshman tallied 31 points and 10 rebounds as No. 3 Arizona beat Eastern New Mexico 91-63 in an exhibition Wednesday in McKale Center.
“It felt amazing,” Ayton said. “I finally got to show what I’ve been working on the whole summer.”
Ayton was 13-16 from the field, using an impressive combination of size, strength, and athleticism to maul the Greyhounds, whose tallest player was 6-foot-7.
“Coach Miller is big on throwing the ball inside to the post,” Ayton said. “That’s how we get our buckets.”
Ayton had several dunks, a few jump hooks, a pair of blocks, and even showed off his ability to handle the ball, intercepting a pass and taking it coast-to-coast for a slam for UA’s first bucket of the game.
Ayton exited with an apparent leg injury with 7:15 left in the second half and would not return, but it did not appear to be serious and he remained on the bench for the remainder of the night.
Ayton said afterward that it was just a cramp and “that’s about it.”
The Wildcats were already without Parker Jackson-Cartwright (ankle), Rawle Alkins (foot), and Dylan Smith (suspension), allowing several of UA’s freshmen to play big minutes.
Emmanuel Akot was Arizona’s second brightest star, notching 10 points and six assists in 25 minutes off the bench. He was 4-5 from the field and 2-2 from 3, not hesitating to shoot from the perimeter.
“That’s an area that we’ve really been on him about because he’s more of a pass-first player,” head coach Sean Miller said. “He’s incredibly unselfish, but we need him to take the open shots when he’s given those. … It was great to see him step in with confidence because when we does that, he already does some other things.
“Six assists at his size? That’s a great performance.”
Alex Barcello, who started in place of Jackson-Cartwright, had seven points (3-6 FG), three rebounds, and two assists in 33 minutes.
Brandon Randolph, who started for Alkins, struggled to find his groove offensively for most of the night, missing all seven of his 3-point attempts, but did score late to finish with 14 points on 5-12 shooting.
“The good sign for Brandon is you can tell he’s not one-dimensional,” Miller said. “He was 0-7 from 3 tonight, that’s uncharacteristic for him, but he still made five field goals and got to the line.
“For him to score 14 points on a night where he’s 0-7, he shows you where he’ll be as we keep moving forward because he really puts the ball on the floor well and attacks the basket better than you think.”
Allonzo Trier and Dusan Ristic had relatively quiet nights, pouring in 10 and 7 points, respectively.
Arizona shot 61 percent from the field, 5-15 from 3, and 16-19 from the free throw line. The Wildcats had 16 assists, and moved the ball fairly well as team. Trier had four assists, and UA’s freshmen as a whole were willing passers, including Ayton, who had two assists.
Arizona’s defense — especially its rebounding — was in anything but midseason form, allowing Eastern New Mexico to haul in 17 offensive rebounds, leading to 16 second-chance points, which Miller called UA’s “Achilles Heel.”
The Greyhounds wound up shooting 37 percent from the field.
“They tested our defense,” Miller said. “We had five freshmen out there and I think in our best attempt to explain the difference between high school and college, there’s nothing like having an opportunity to get out there for the first time against another team and to experience what the pace with a 22- or 23-year-old college basketball player feels like.
“At times we broke down, but that’s what you do on November 1 when you have that many young players out there."
Arizona led 47-31 at halftime, behind 17 first-half points from Ayton and 10 from Akot, and by as many 20 points in the period, but got a little careless toward the end, allowing ENMU to get within 12 with 1:18 left in the half.
An acrobatic layup by Barcello in transition and a mid-range jumper by Ira Lee pushed UA’s lead back to 16.
Lee had nine points on a perfect 4-4 shooting.
“Those guys both did a good job,” Miller said. “Alex is really a tough kid. He really is. He practices a lot like T.J. McConnell did. Everyday he’s the same and he’s going to do nothing but get better and better as he gets more game experience. We’re really fortunate to have him and Ira as well. Ira is a hard-working, intelligent kid.”
Ayton scored eight points early in the second half, helping UA extend its lead to 64-47 with 12:40 left in regulation.
Later, Ayton had a layup and dunk to push the margin to 80-49 with 7:15 left before he was removed from the game.
“It all came together and we executed well,” Ayton said. “Playing in McKale with a full house was real, it was live, and it was fun. I enjoyed every second of it.”
Arizona returns to action Sunday when it will host Chico State at 4 p.m. MST in its final exhibition.
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire