With Allonzo Trier limited by a knee injury and Rawle Alkins still working his way back from a broken foot, the UConn Huskies figured their best chance to beat Arizona involved throwing body after body at Deandre Ayton.
Trapping the 7-footer, doubling on the low block, sometimes even sending a third defender his way.
Ayton finished with just nine points, as the Huskies became the first team all season to prevent him from scoring in double figures, but there were a couple problems with their strategy.
One, Arizona isn’t a one-man team.
Alkins scored 20 points, Dusan Ristic added 18, and Trier chipped in with 15.
Two, Ayton is not just a willing passer, but a darn good one — and Thursday was his best performance yet in that regard, tallying a career-high five assists in the 73-58 victory.
“His passing is very understated,” head coach Sean Miller said. “He had five assists, but I’m not so sure that all five of his assists weren’t 3s. His value might have been 15 points right there. It’s hard to double team him. Dusan benefits from that and all of our perimeter players benefit from that. We had a couple shots that we missed that he passed out, but they threw everybody at him. The kitchen sink.
“I think at some point in the second half, he was apprehensive to even turn and a couple times if he would have he might have scored. They were trapping him and they did a good job. That was their game plan. They wanted somebody else to beat them and that’s what happened. A couple of our guys did beat them, but it was because of Deandre’s unselfishness."
Ayton did get in foul trouble which only allowed him to play seven minutes in the first half, but that’s when Ristic scored 10 of his 18 points to help UA take a 30-23 lead into the break.
“Someone had to step up when he made the second foul in the first half and tonight that was me,” Ristic said. “We’re a deep team. We have a lot of pieces. When this happens, we have a lot of guys who can step up, and I was that guy tonight.”
Ristic was 6-9 from the field and his lone assist resulted in one of the most important makes of the game.
Up 57-55 with just under five minutes left, Ristic corralled an offensive board and immediately kicked it out to Parker Jackson-Cartwright who sank a triple from the wing to put Arizona ahead 60-55.
“Tonight might have been one of his best games ever at Arizona,” Miller said of the Serbian center. “We needed him in the first half, we needed him late in the game and he delivered.”
Before Jackson-Cartwright’s 3, Ristic scored back-to-back buckets to help the Wildcats keep a narrow edge over the Huskies after they had erased UA’s halftime lead.
“In the beginning of the second half, they made a run, and it was a close game until the last six minutes, “ Ristic said. “I just kept playing hard, that’s it. Nothing special.”
Arizona (10-3) ended the game on a 19-5 run to win comfortably for their seventh straight victory.
“Part of why we didn’t look good at times was because of [UConn], but I loved the way we finished the game,” Miller said. “That’s what you do when you’re a good team, especially at home. You find a way and play your best at the end.
“It’s good to see our guys do that. We’re so much more of a confident group and team than we used to be, and I think that’s something that’s more important than anything.”
It was Arizona’s first win over UConn in six tries.
Miller was unaware.
“Maybe because I beat them so much when I played (for Pitt),” he joked. “Just kidding. I’m going to get in trouble for that one."
That Jackson-Cartwright made a timely 3 should not have been a surprise. The senior point guard is one of the top shooters in college basketball.
After making both 3-point attempts against UConn, Jackson-Cartwright is now shooting 18-34 (53 percent) from that range this year.
Quality, not quantity, is his approach.
“I think I’ve always tried to take good ones rather than taking ones I don’t feel comfortable with,” Jackson-Cartwright said. “Coach believes in me, my teammates believe in me to take 3s, but I know myself that the rhythm I get comes from taking good ones. So when I’m open I’ll shoot it and if they go under a screen I’ll take one.”
Miller would probably prefer if his whole team had that mindset. Arizona only shot 41 percent in the first half partly because it missed seven of its nine 3-point attempts.
“In the first eight minutes it’s important that we get the ball in close to the basket,” Miller said. “Fouls happen, you get to the other team’s bench, you get in the bonus earlier, and that opens up a lot of things. Sometimes, like any team, we’re not perfect and we lose sight of that.”
Arizona wound up shooting 7-10 from 3 in the second half to finish 9-19. That, of course, was spurred by the attention Ayton was receiving in the paint.
“We have to take good 3s, but a lot of our 3-point shots came tonight off of an inside catch and then out,” Miller said. “Those are high percentage shots. Our 19 3s, 14 of them were great-looking shots.”
The Wildcats are currently the No. 1 3-point shooting team in the Pac-12 at 39.4 percent, one-tenth of a percent ahead of ASU.
Like Jackson-Cartwright, the Wildcats succeed because they are selective (most of the time, anyway). Only 32.5 percent of UA’s shot attempts are 3s this year, which is one of the lowest rates in the country.
Arizona and UConn combined for 31 turnovers in what was a rather sloppy game (especially in the first half), and PJC uncharacteristically had four to go along with his three assists.
The senior had a 5.2 assist-to-turnover ratio in his last seven games prior to Thursday’s matchup.
But Rawle Alkins had no such problem — the sophomore had zero turnovers. Pleasantly surprised, Miller double checked to make sure the stat was accurate.
“That’s a big deal because he’s so aggressive and when he’s that aggressive and not turning the ball over, he’s going to get fouled, he’s going to find his teammates and he really took what the defense gave him tonight,” Miller said.
Alkins finished with a game-high 20 points on 6-11 shooting, and made three of his five 3-point attempts.
Early in the second half, Alkins hit consecutive 3s which allowed Arizona to re-take a 39-36 lead and then expand it to 42-38. That was right after he took a shoulder to the head, too.
“Rawle has worked extremely hard on his 3-point shooting,” Miller said. “When he first came here he was streaky at best but he can really shoot the ball. They went zone tonight and he answered the bell on almost every possession.”
Alkins played 31 minutes Thursday, which tied a season-high, and Miller believes the sophomore is only playing at 80 percent.
“Not because of his health, but more because of his conditioning,” Miller said. “He can really wear down during the course of a game. ... 31 minutes is a lot. So this next stretch … he’ll really settle in to being the total player that we know he is.”
Trier played 35 minutes, despite nursing a left knee injury, and finished with 15 points and two assists on 11 shots.
“Even in a bad game he scores 15 points, so we’ll take that,” Ristic said before cracking a smile.
Miller said Trier wasn’t 100 percent, but also “wasn’t at any further risk” of re-aggravating his injury. The junior has a minor knee sprain, but a “significant bruise” which he suffered Monday against North Dakota State.
Trier played the first half with a white sleeve on his knee, but shedded it for the second half.
“Allonzo’s a tough kid and he loves the game. He didn’t miss much (time) either, so the fact he was available and ready to play was a testament to him,” Miller said. “His defense down the stretch was a big reason we won. We switched him on (Jalen) Adams and he rose to the challenge.”
Adams, UConn’s leading scorer, was held to 13 points on 5-16 shooting.
Thursday’s game marked the first time all season UConn lost while winning the rebounding battle.
The Wildcats had the edge in defensive rebounds, but the Huskies had five more offensive rebounds.
Arizona is just 105th (of 351) in the country in offensive rebounding percentage this season, despite starting two 7-footers.
“We don’t offensive rebound nearly at the level that we’re capable of and that’s something we have to get better at and we will,” Miller said.
Arizona got plenty of production all across its starting lineup, but its bench was a no-show again.
The Wildcats only got five points from the unit — a 3 by Dylan Smith and a dunk by Keanu Pinder on an assist from Smith.
Emmanuel Akot, Ira Lee, and Brandon Randolph all went scoreless.
Alex Barcello missed his second game of the season as he continues to battle an ankle injury, but Miller said he fully expects the freshman point guard to available at the start of Pac-12 play.
Akot, dealing with knee tendinitis, only played two minutes despite him having something of a breakout performance against NDSU on Monday.
The Wildcats will now head separate ways for Christmas break before reconvening on Dec. 26 when they will start preparing for Dec. 30’s highly-anticipated home game against the No. 3 Arizona State Sun Devils.
Even though Arizona has won seven straight and is playing its best basketball, Miller isn’t worried about his team losing its groove over the holidays.
“It’s healthy for our players to have that opportunity. They need a break,” he said. “If you think about a college student, they relish the opportunity to finish their classes and go home. These guys are not only doing that, but they’ve practiced, they’re listening to their coach all the time. It’s time for a break for them. They’ll come back rejuvenated.”
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire