In a rivalry game for the ages, the Arizona Wildcats proved they are still the top team in the state, outlasting the third-ranked Arizona State Sun Devils 84-78 on Saturday in Tucson to open Pac-12 play.
The game, hyped as one that could be the best ever in the in-state series, lived up to its billing, featuring two elite teams playing at a dizzying pace in front of a deafening sold-out crowd.
There was even a Bobby Hurley temper tantrum, too.
"It felt to me like a really good game,” Arizona head coach Sean Miller joked.
“We knew we were in for one heck of a game, and if we weren’t playing at a high level tonight we wouldn’t have won.”
While ASU, which entered as the last unbeaten team in college basketball, showed plenty of resiliency nearly erasing a few double-digit deficits in the second half, Arizona’s combo of Deandre Ayton and Allonzo Trier was too much to handle for the visiting Sun Devils.
Ayton had 23 points and 19 rebounds, while Trier overcame a lackluster first half in which he only scored five points to finish with 23 points and four assists.
“Their performance was spectacular,” Miller said. “I hope everybody in McKale realizes what 23 points and 19 rebounds feels like for a freshman. You don’t see that very often.”
Ayton was 9-14 from the field, taking advantage of defenders who were several inches shorter than him on the low block.
“He really put the game out of reach,” Miller said. “When we won the game, it was because of his dominance close to the basket. We did a good job of getting him the ball deep and that’s not as easy to do as everybody thinks. I also thought Deandre did, for the most part, a good job on defense in the role that he had.”
“They’re undersized big men and I took advantage of it tonight on both ends of the floor,” Ayton said.
The Sun Devils entered with the No. 4 offense in the country, but shot just 38 percent from the field and 8-25 from 3.
It was only the third time all season ASU had been held under the 80-point mark. The Sun Devils, usually good at taking care of the ball, had 13 turnovers, too.
Arizona’s defensive improvement was on display, contesting 3s and forcing difficult looks at the rim.
“For about 30 minutes of the 40, we couldn’t have done a better job defending them,” Miller said. “I thought some of their turnovers were because of our defense. Some of their missed 3s were challenged and we’ll take it. If they’re that good of a team, then I think it says a lot about our team."
Tra Holder overwhelmingly led the Sun Devils with 31 points. He made 15 of 16 attempts from the line, with 10 them coming in the second half.
The senior was 6-12 from the field, while his teammates combined to shoot just 19-54 (35.2 percent).
“He’s coming to the basket constantly and we’re not the only team that he’s done that to,” Miller said. “But in the first half we certainly did a much better job. There’s a wearing-down effect. It’s hard to play that level of defense for 40 minutes. We probably strung 28-30 minutes together. And keep in mind that a lot of their baskets and fouls at the end weren’t because of our defense, they were because of our offense.”
Arizona led 76-64 with 4:11 left after a three-point play by Ayton and appeared to finally be taking control of the game, but then became “unglued” as Miller described it.
The Wildcats had 16 turnovers, three of which were committed in the last three minutes against ASU’s unrelenting full-court press.
Plus, with Arizona up 10, Parker Jackson-Cartwright missed a wide open layup which quickly turned into a three-point play for the Sun Devils and, eventually, a 9-0 run that was capped off by a deep 3 by Holder to cut UA’s lead to 76-73 with 2:17 left.
"That would have put us up 12,” Miller said of PJC’s missed opportunity. “The ball went from that rim to that rim for a 3-point play so fast your head spun."
But as UA nursed its waning three-point lead, Trier worked his way up the court through ASU’s press, lost his footing and somehow kept his dribble before driving to the lane for two.
Arizona got a stop on the ensuing possession, but in typical this-game fashion, Ayton coughed the ball up and Kodi Justice sank a corner 3 to make it 78-76 with 1:19 left to tense the McKale Center crowd.
Trier went back to the rim and put up an errant shot, but in came Ayton flying in for the tip-in to give UA an 80-76 lead with 11 seconds left.
“He was ready for tonight’s game and thank goodness,” Miller said of the big man. “We needed it.”
Holder made two free throws to put ASU within two, but Trier hit two clutch free throws with 10 seconds left to finally ice the game.
“We didn’t handle the ball or finish the game well at all,” Miller said. “We were fortunate. We put ourselves in a position to possibly lose the game when maybe we could have paraded to the foul line and won by maybe eight points."
Earlier, Arizona had taken a 12-point lead with 10:55 left after Rawle Alkins found Dusan Ristic under the hoop for an easy slam.
Alkins pumped his fist and hollered “let’s go!” as ASU called a timeout, but the Sun Devils put that break to good use.
Holder scored 11 points within a three-minute span as ASU went on a 13-2 run to make it a 64-63 UA lead with 7:52 left.
ASU missed two layups in transition that would have given it the lead (thanks to a good defensive effort by Trier) and Jackson-Cartwright sank a jumper in transition to put UA up 66-63.
Then Trier gave the Wildcats a six-point cushion by sinking a deep 3 early in the shot clock on UA’s next possession.
Trier missed his first seven shots of the game, but finished 5-15 from the field and scored 18 points in the second half.
“I just missed open shots that should’ve went in,” he said. “I was confident that they would start falling eventually."
While inefficient from the field, Trier was 10-10 from the charity stripe, making several timely free throws down the stretch.
“Sometimes he’ll start slow but as the game keeps going he finds his rhythm and he’s great to have the ball in his hands at the end of the game because he can really shoot free throws, drive, shoot from the 3,” Miller said.
The Wildcats got 12 points and four rebounds from Dusan Ristic, who proved that they could play both of their 7-footers and have success against ASU’s small-ball style of play.
Arizona only outrebounded the undersized ASU squad 40-39 and had just a slim 28-26 edge in points in the paint, but ASU forward Romello White, averaging nearly 15 points per game, fouled out after scoring just two points.
His partner, Mickey Mitchell, had 10 points on 11 shots with four fouls. Arizona’s frontcourt won the battle.
“Romello White didn’t have his typical game tonight and that combination of Dusan and Deandre I’m sure affected him at least to some degree,” Miller said.
Arizona led 39-37 at the break after the two teams traded blow after blow in a frenetically-paced first half — quite literally, as Ayton picked up a technical foul for a light elbow to Shannon Evans’ chest.
Evans was later called for a technical, though Hurley somehow avoided one, despite voicing his displeasure to the officials through the game, even having to be restrained by a couple players at one point.
As Trier struggled to find his shot, Dylan Smith hit a trio of 3s which helped Arizona jump out to a six-point lead early on, revving up the home crowd which turned out to be boisterous all game.
“I couldn’t hear myself for a few possessions,” Ayton said.
While ASU didn’t have the crowd behind it, Remy Martin provided the Sun Devils with plenty of energy, pouring in nine of his 11 points in the first half. In consecutive possessions, the guard stole a pass from Ayton and took it for a dunk then hit a 3, which helped ASU capture the lead.
ASU took its largest lead of the game a few moments later when Justice hit a 3 to put the Sun Devils up 35-30.
The ASU guard turned to the crowd and tried to hush it, but all that did was awaken Trier who scored all five of his first-half points in the last 90 seconds to give UA a narrow lead at halftime. Arizona finished the period on a 7-0 run.
The Wildcats never relinquished the lead from there, but they sure came close a few times as the Sun Devils gave it all they had before picking up their first loss of the season.
Had the Sun Devils won, they likely would have been the No. 1 team come Monday thanks to a loss by Villanova earlier in the day.
“It’s hard to believe this was just our conference opener,” Miller said. “We have 17 more left.”
Miller called ASU a “heavy favorite” to win the Pac-12 earlier in the week, but the Wildcats still appear to be the team to beat in the conference, though ASU proved it’s no slouch.
Arizona (11-3) has won eight straight with its win over the Sun Devils being its most impressive showing to date.
That three-game losing streak in the Bahamas? That’s way behind the Wildcats now. The ship has been righted.
“Coach Miller broke it down to us that we should be playing like this every game,” Ayton said. “So everything that we did early in the season, scratch that out. We’re just on a roll right now.”
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire