In a game that featured three of college basketball’s brightest stars, the Arizona Wildcats’ high-powered duo of Allonzo Trier and Deandre Ayton outshined Collin Sexton and the Alabama Crimson Tide, 88-82, on Saturday in McKale Center.
Ayton had career-highs in points (29) and rebounds (18) and Trier added an efficient 25 points on just six shots.
Trier scored 20 points in the second half and lived at the free-throw line, sinking 14 of his 16 attempts. The junior made three 3s and dished out a season-high six assists (along with four turnovers).
“If you look at every single game we’ve played now, every time that I catch the ball there’s guys loaded where I’m at, so there’s always guys open,” Trier said.
Ayton was one of those guys. He was 12-18 from the field and 1-2 from 3.
“He’s a weapon that nobody else in the country has and we have to take advantage of it at all times,” Trier said.
Despite foul trouble and not scoring his first basket until midway through the first half, Sexton finished with 30 points on 6-15 shooting.
Sexton’s ability to hit tough shots and get to the free throw line not only kept Alabama in the game, but allowed it to lead for over 10 minutes, despite it shooting just 39 percent from the field (shooting 10-24 from 3 helped, too).
The freshman point guard shot 15-16 from the line and 3-6 from 3. He was guarded mostly by Parker Jackson-Cartwright and then Trier at times.
“I just had to get a feel for the type of defense they were going to play, and then to just get out there and get in a flow,” Sexton said. “In the second half, coach told me to attack a little more and to find teammates when they were open.”
Sexton banked in a buzzer-beating 3 to put Alabama up 40-38 at halftime, despite the Tide trailing 24-13 early on.
A long 3 by Sexton gave Alabama a 51-45 lead, then he hit sank another to make it 58-53 Tide with 12:37 left.
After 3s by Trier and Brandon Randolph, Sexton made two free throws to tie the game at 76, but Ayton tipped in a miss by Dusan Ristic then sank a free throw to push the Wildcats’ lead to 79-76 with 2:19 left.
Ayton then made back-to-back jumpers to make it 83-77 with a minute to go to seal the game.
“[He] was the difference tonight,” Arizona head coach Sean Miller said.
Rawle Alkins returned from a broken foot and had seven points, three rebounds, and two assists in 22 minutes in his debut. The sophomore checked in to a standing ovation with 17:06 in the first half, replacing Randolph, who had scored five early points and finished with 13.
Alkins’ jumper looked shaky, shooting 0-3 from behind the arc, and he air-balled a wide open 3 in the corner with Arizona up 76-72 with 4:47 left, but he made his presence felt with his distributing and defensive intensity.
Alkins drove and dished to Jackson-Cartwright for a corner 3 which put Arizona up 17-13, then Alkins found Dusan Ristic underneath on the next possession to extend the lead to 19-13.
Later, Alkins drew a foul going for a loose ball and split a pair of free throws to put Arizona up 70-67 with eight minutes left.
“I wasn’t trying to do too much. I was just trying to just get by and see what was there and take what the defense was giving me,” he said. “I’m a little rusty as you can see my shot wasn’t falling too much, but over time that’s going to get better.”
Miller thought Alkins played in stretches and his conditioning (understandably) wasn’t where it usually is.
“There were some great 2-3 minute stretches in the first half where he made passes, moved the ball, and got others involved,” Miller said.
“He has the ability to make other players better. When you haven’t played in eleven weeks, there are going to be times when he is out of breath. Attempts to play really well can backfire, and he probably had a few of those segments as well.”
Aside from Trier, free throw shooting was an issue all game for the Wildcats. They shot 22-35 (63 percent) from the line. Ayton was 4-8. Alkins was 3-6.
Arizona shot 52 percent overall and 8-16 from 3, but the missed free throws kept the Tide around, especially since Alabama shot 24-28 from the stripe itself.
Arizona expanded its lead to 24-13 with 8:59 after a free throw by Alkins which capped off an 11-2 run. That was Arizona’s largest lead of the game.
Sexton was pinned to the bench during that stretch, as he picked up his second foul with 13:42 left.
But Sexton returned later in the period and helped the Tide capture a 40-38 lead at the break.
After a 3 by John Petty, Sexton scored his first points with floater off the glass to cut Arizona’s lead to 24-18.
Alabama continued its push, and two free throws by Sexton and a layup by Dazon Ingram trimmed the Wildcats’ lead to 26-24 with 5:53 left.
Sexton would tie the game at 26 with two free throws before Trier snapped Alabama’s 12-2 run with a 3. Trier then found Ayton in transition to make it 31-26.
Alabama answered with a 7-0 run in the final 1:34. Ingram drained a corner 3 to cut Arizona’s lead to 38-37, then Sexton banked in a desperation 3 at the buzzer to give the Tide the lead at the break.
Petty sank four 3s and finished with 13 points. Donta Hall had 15 points and 12 rebounds. Ingram had 10 points, going 5-6 from the line.
Ristic had nine points (4-10 FG) and six rebounds. Sean Miller shortened Arizona’s rotation considerably, as Alex Barcello, Dylan Smith, and Keanu Pinder played four minutes or fewer.
Ira Lee played 11 minutes, and had four fouls. Trier, Alkins, and Randolph also had four fouls in a game that featured 48 fouls between the two teams.
Sexton fouled out with eight seconds left while Ingram had four.
Arizona won the rebounding battle 43-30. Both teams had 26 points in the paint. Alabama had eight turnovers. Arizona had 12.
Arizona returns to action Saturday when it travels to Albuquerque to face the New Mexico Lobos.
The Wildcats, who have now won four straight, are likely to be in the Top 25 come Monday.
There were 19 NBA scouts, two general managers, and three assistant GMs at Saturday’s game, presumably to see Ayton and Sexton play.
Both are expected to be selected in the top 10 (if not top five) of the 2018 NBA Draft.
When asked if he thought Ayton’s performance made a statement to NBA personnel, Miller said, "I don’t know what statement he needs to make. I don’t think he gets enough credit."
Miller said he has a hard time believing there’s a better player in college basketball than Ayton.
McKale Center had its best buzz in recent memory. After all, this was the first major-conference team Arizona has hosted in non-conference play since it faced a lowly Missouri team in 2015-16.
The sold-out (and striped out) crowd greeted Alkins with a deafening standing ovation and Alkins later pumped up the crowd when he stepped to the free throw line for the first time.
“During the SEC, we’re going to have to go Kentucky, Missouri, and places like that which have the same types of crowds,” Sexton said. “So I feel like just this game alone, and being on the road, helped us fight back and not lay down.”
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire