If the Arizona State Sun Devils looked unprepared to take on Deandre Ayton when he posted 23 points and 19 rebounds Saturday, it’s because they were.
The Sun Devils had a few extra days to brace for the UA big man, having just one game this week, but they weren’t able to effectively emulate Ayton’s skill set in practice.
“It’s hard to simulate,” ASU head coach Bobby Hurley said after his team lost 84-78 to Arizona. “We can’t really simulate their size in practice.”
“Nobody on any practice team has somebody his size, so you can’t really prepare for it when it comes to the game,” UA guard Allonzo Trier said. “So it’s going to be tough for every team.”
Like most opponents, ASU felt its best chance to slow down Ayton was to send waves of defenders at him.
“We tried to surround him,” Hurley said. “We trapped sometimes. Sometimes we dug. We mixed it up.”
ASU had more success than most, to be fair. It forced Ayton to commit six turnovers. Two of Ayton’s passes out of the post were stolen and taken the other way for two points.
But ultimately Ayton did Ayton things, finishing with 23 points on 9-14 shooting. Occasionally the big man steps out and hits jumpers, but he did his damage exclusively in the paint against ASU’s small frontcourt.
“He was in there forever and you give a guy a chance to sit in the paint that long, eventually they’re going to find him and give him the ball because he’s a pretty big target,” Hurley said.
Arizona would be dumb not to feed Ayton.
“Whoever coaches him, that’s what you’re going to judge yourself on,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “We don’t have any magic potion. You have to get him the ball. Just remember now, it’s not just his points, it’s his passing. He might have had a turnover or two when post-trapped, but he finds teammates.
“He’s making the defense pay with his passing and his scoring.”
Ayton finished with three assists — one of which led to a key 3 by Trier that increased UA’s lead to 69-63 with roughly six minutes to play.
Miller also praised Ayton’s defensive effort. The 7-footer had three blocks and a steal. He helped limit ASU’s Romello White, who was averaging nearly 15 points per game entering Saturday’s contest, to just two points and eight rebounds in 18 minutes.
White fouled out, too.
“He really put the game out of reach,” Miller said of Ayton. “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.
“Romello White didn’t have his typical game tonight and that combination of Dusan (Ristic) and Deandre I’m sure affected him at least to some degree.”
“Romello I’m sure hasn’t seen two guys like that,” he said.
Certainly not in practice.
“Ayton is a handful,” Hurley said. “What he does is pretty special.”
Ayton picked up his first collegiate technical foul after lightly shoving ASU guard Shannon Evans with his elbow between plays, though Ayton wasn’t certain that’s what he was called for.
“I think I got it on an off-ball shove,” he said. “I was getting grabbed. It was an intense game, so I don’t know.”
Miller wasn’t really sure, either.
“He might have bumped somebody after the whistle," he said. "We’ll look at it. Deandre’s smart. Deandre’s not a guy who goes looking for problems. He probably just has to make sure he understands the rule, coming from high school to college, you’re not allowed to do that and if you do here’s the consequence.
“But in a game like that I was surprised the call was made, but it was a tough game to referee. It really was. It was fast, had a lot of emotion, a lot of things going on. I thought they did a good job.”
Ayton also struggled a bit when handling ASU’s full-court press. Of his six turnovers, one led to a Kodi Justice 3 that cut UA’s lead to 78-76 with 1:12 left.
“He wasn’t used to getting a rebound and nobody getting back, but he’s young, he’ll learn from it as will our team,” Miller said.
The Wildcats had 16 turnovers, including three against ASU’s press in the last three minutes of the game.
As much emotion as there was in the game, Trier sort of downplayed the significance of the rivalry matchup as a whole, even though Miller declared a few days before that ASU was a “heavy favorite” to win the Pac-12.
“I ain’t heard nothing about that,” Trier said. “We just knew it was the first game of conference, trying to protect home court, but whether we were playing Arizona State or Colorado or Utah, it doesn’t matter to us. We’re trying to win every single game we go out and play and we expect to win every single game we go out and play. I’ll leave it as that."
Miller later clarified Trier’s comment.
“I don’t think he says that in any disrespect toward the opponent or the rivalry,” Miller said. “I think what you try to sell to the players is this is one game, we have 17 more left. This isn’t a bowl game where you win, great, you lose you’re done till next year. It’s the beginning of a long journey in a conference season, so not getting too high, not getting too low is probably what he meant by that comment and that’s really what we try to stress to these guys.”
Hurley, who was calm and collected after the game despite showing his frustrating during it, has a similar mindset.
“We’re just going to regroup,” he said. “This is a marathon. It’s fun to be in these games. You live for these games. It was such a hard-fought game. Both teams battling, wanting it really bad. It was a lot of fun.”
Trier missed his first six shots in the game and only scored five points in the first half, but still managed to post 23 points in the win.
The junior was 5-15 from the field, 10-10 from the line, and 3-8 from 3. Trier scored 18 points in the second half, including some crucial points down the stretch.
“I just missed open shots that should’ve went in,” Trier said. “If you look at my percentages on the year and what I’ve been able to do and how I play as a player, there were probably at least four or five that should’ve went down. It happens, but I’m a confident dude. I put a lot of work in. I’m coming back at night doing all kinds of extra time, so I was confident that they would start falling eventually."
Miller was too.
“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,” he said.
“He’s become a really good passer. Sometimes I find myself saying, ‘man, he’s come a long way for me to say that’ but four assists and no turnovers in tonight’s game speaks volumes for how he’s started to find his teammates and take care of the ball.”
Arizona held double-digit leads several times over the Sun Devils in the second half and nearly squandered all of them away, but still held on to win.
Was that a good sign that the Wildcats were poised enough to stave off an undefeated ASU team? Or was it a negative that the Sun Devils were able to get back into the game?
“They’re a really good team,” Miller answered. “We’re not going to beat them by 20 points, 10, 15 points. For us to win that game going away, a lot of things would have had to fall in place. The difference between the two teams isn’t big enough for that game to go in that direction. It was hard-fought the whole time and that’s why they were undefeated coming into our game.”
ASU entered the game No. 2 in the country in free throw rate, but only attempted six free throws in the first half. However, the Sun Devils took 19 in the second half.
Tra Holder, who finished with 31 points, got to the line 16 times in all, but 10 times in the second half alone.
What changed? Arizona’s energy level, probably.
“Whether you agree with the foul or not, 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.”
Holder was one of ASU’s seniors — Shannon Evans and Kodi Justice being the others — who Miller described as “refreshing to see.”
“They have really improved. I remember when they were freshmen, and sophomores, and juniors, they were good, but man you can tell they’ve spent a ton of time in gym and made themselves into some really terrific players,” Miller said. “That’s to Bobby Hurley and his staff’s credit and that’s something that we have to do. When you look at our team, developing our bench, developing our freshmen, developing on our players where they have more confidence, making better plays.”
Miller singled out UA guard Dylan Smith as an example. The UNC Asheville transfer hit three huge 3s in the first half as Trier struggled with his shooting.
Arizona’s bench didn’t do much else, which is a recurring problem. Brandon Randolph did hit a 3 and a pair of free throws, but Alex Barcello and Ira Lee both went scoreless and the Wildcats were -7 when they were on the floor.
Emmanuel Akot did not play. Neither did Keanu Pinder.
Four of Arizona’s starters played 33 minutes or more, a sign that Miller isn’t exactly willing to rely on his bench in important games. Probably a smart move.
Arizona (11-3) has now won eight straight since its three-game losing streak in the Bahamas.
After UA beating ASU, ESPN reporter Jeff Goodman tweeted that “Arizona has certainly righted the ship after that disaster down in the Bahamas, and Wildcats have two studs in Allonzo Trier and Deandre Ayton ... but point guard play still worrisome.”
Yet, Miller thought Parker Jackson-Cartwright did a “good job” vs. the Sun Devils.
“Six assists to one turnover. He’s a three assist to one turnover guy,” Miller said. “I know he had that layup (that he missed) which kinda opened up like the Red Sea. That was a real turning point in the game, but obviously he’ll make it (in the future).”
That layup Miller is referring to came late in the second half. It would have extended UA’s 10-point lead to 12, but the miss led to a three-point play for ASU which eventually ballooned into a 9-0 run.
Equally as surprising as PJC’s missed layup was that he missed three open looks from 3, finishing 1-4 from that distance.
The senior is shooting 50 percent from 3 this season.
On Saturday, McKale Center was probably the loudest it had been since last year’s UCLA game or the Gonzaga game a few years before that even though the students are still on winter break.
The crowd’s energy certainly helped the Wildcats navigate through some of the game’s toughest moments.
“Our crowd is one of the best in the country night in and night out,” Miller said. “It doesn’t matter if the students are here. Doesn’t matter if they aren’t. It’s the best. We appreciate what they mean to our home-court advantage.
“They’re also one of the most knowledge crowds in the game. When our team is down or things aren’t going well, today’s way is you just start booing. And our crowd senses that we need a pickup and that’s when they a lot of times get the loudest which is remarkable. Not a lot of crowds are like that and that’s a tribute to Coach (Lute) Olson. They’ve seen so many teams and big games for decades that they know what to do and how to do it. And we needed them tonight and they were there.”
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire