PHOENIX — Call it a freshman mistake, a tribute to Jamelle Horne or whatever, but the Arizona Wildcats were fortunate it didn’t cost them a win over a top-10 team.
Leading 65-62 with two seconds left in regulation, Deandre Ayton fouled Texas A&M point guard Duane Wilson behind the 3-point line as he smartly started his shooting motion after streaking up the court.
Ayton meant to foul before the shot and Sean Miller pleaded with the refs that the foul was on the floor, but a lengthy review proved otherwise.
Luckily for Arizona, Wilson — a 94.7 percent free throw shooter — missed the first of three free throws and the Wildcats would hold on to beat No. 7 Texas A&M 67-64 in front of a pro-Arizona crowd in Phoenix.
“It’s always great to go through these situations at the end of the game. We were going to foul on purpose but when you do that you have to do it right at the halfcourt line,” Miller said. “We had a younger group in, we didn’t communicate, Parker (Jackson-Cartwright) got back screened and we ended up fouling a 3-point shooter which you never want to do.
“That’s a lesson learned and I’m glad we could learn it with a win.”
In an energy-packed game that featured eight ties and 15 lead changes, Arizona used what Miller said was its best defensive performance of the season to stave off the Aggies.
It helped that the Wildcats got to the free throw line. A lot.
Texas A&M picked up six team fouls in the first three minutes of the second half, and Arizona shot 19-22 from the charity stripe in the period, outscoring the Aggies 38-33 in the final 20 minutes despite the Aggies shooting 54.2 percent from the field.
Texas A&M shot just 10 free throws all game.
“We put them on the line too many times,” Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said. “That was the difference in the game.”
Four different Wildcats — Ayton, Brandon Randolph, Dusan Ristic, and Dylan Smith —led the team with 13 points.
Ayton had 10 rebounds to complete a double-double and Smith was a perfect 3 from 3 from behind the arc. Randolph hit several key free throws down the stretch.
Allonzo Trier had an off-night, scoring seven points on 2-7 shooting. He was held scoreless in the first half and his first points were a 3 with 17:08 in the second half which put UA up 36-33.
“And we were still able to win which was great,” Miller said. “On different nights over the long course of the season, it’s not always going to be Deandre with 25, Allonzo at 24. Balance is going to seep in.”
Parker Jackson-Cartwright had just five points and three assists on 1-6 shooting, but he hit the biggest shot of the game, sinking a corner 3 to put Arizona up 61-58 with 1:46 left.
The Wildcats would not surrender the lead from there.
"He delivered. That’s experience,” Miller said. “Not letting five or six misses get in the way of a good shot. He took it with confidence and he made it.”
Texas A&M center Tyler Davis led the Aggies with 21 points but was limited to two rebounds. The Aggies shot 46 percent from the field and 36 percent from 3.
They led 31-28 at the half in what was a back-and-forth period.
The Aggies hit their first four shots to jump out to a 9-4 lead. After Miller called timeout, the Wildcats responded with a 13-2 run capped by a Smith 3 from the corner to put them up 17-11 with 11:46 left.
Texas A&M responded with a 9-0 run to take a 20-17 lead, then Smith and Alex Barcello hit a pair of 3s as Arizona had an 8-0 run to go ahead 25-20.
Arizona would score just one basket in the final 5:23 of the period, however, and Wilson hit a 3 with 18 seconds left that gave the Aggies the lead at the break.
Arizona committed eight turnovers in the first half which led to 10 points for the Aggies. But the Wildcats cleaned up their offensive execution and only had three turnovers in the second half. That was what Miller deemed to be the “biggest reason” Arizona won.
“Playing this game with 11 turnovers was a big deal,” he said.
It’s the third win in a row for Arizona (6-3) which will be tested yet again Saturday when it hosts Alabama (6-2) at 8 p.m. MST.
The Crimson Tide recently fell out of the Top 25 after losing to UCF, but they are easily the toughest opponent Arizona has faced at home this season.
“Now we have to be able to handle these two wins (vs. UNLV and Texas A&M) ... and we have really what I’d call our first really big game at home where a lot of people are going to care nationally,” Miller said. “We have to be ready for that.”
More notes from Tuesday’s game in Phoenix can be found here. Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire