Stuck in a brutal shooting slump, Rawle Alkins made his way to McKale Center earlier than usual for Saturday’s game against USC.
Once he got there, he just kept shooting, and shooting, and shooting. That was his remedy.
“I didn’t change my form, I didn’t go on YouTube, I didn’t have a shooting coach,” he said. “I just kept shooting and the repetitions made me get my feel back in my shot.”
A few hours later, Alkins busted out of his slump, shooting 4-of-7 from 3 in an 81-67 win over the Trojans.
In all, the sophomore finished with 20 points, five assists, and three rebounds as the Arizona Wildcats snapped a two-game losing streak.
During that skid, Alkins scored just nine points, shooting 1-of-8 from 3 and 4-of-20 from the field.
“It was no secret that I’ve been struggling these last two weeks, so I’ve been putting extra work in the gym and it’s paying off,” he said.
As Alkins regained his shooting stroke Saturday, the Wildcats put together what Sean Miller called one of their best performances all season.
That is no coincidence. When Alkins plays well, the Wildcats win. When he doesn’t? They lose.
”When he plays well, he affects everybody on the court and everybody plays with a chip on their shoulder and extra energy,” said UA center Dusan Ristic. “Tonight (against USC) was the real example of that.”
That might seem like a lot on Alkins’ shoulders, but he doesn’t see it that way.
“No pressure,” he said. “It’s great to see that my coaches and my teammates believe in me.”
Alkins believes in himself, too. Even as his shots continued to clank off the iron.
”That’s part of why I kept missing,” he said. “I kept shooting, so I’m always thinking the next one’s going in, the next one’s going in.”
Statistically, Alkins is having a tremendous sophomore season, averaging a career-high 13.6 points and 4.1 rebounds, with a shooting line of .463/.390/.750.
But he has looked a step slower on defense, and Miller believes Alkins’ game can still get to a higher level — mainly because Alkins has not been able to develop much of a flow.
He’s missed 12 games and a countless number of practices this year because of a foot injury.
“You just have to realize how much time he’s missed,” Miller said. “And then he’s in a boot between games, we give him an extra day. We have no choice. It’s not like we messed up. We were looking after his best interest. And if he has pain, you have to shut him down. By doing that, we got rid of his pain and our hope is that he can be with us now until the end. But he went a long, long period of time without any pain.”
Alkins didn’t use the injury as an excuse for his poor play, saying he was in no pain during his slump and that he “just played like trash” the last two weeks. Whatever the reason, this much is clear — the Wildcats need Alkins to finish the season strong if they plan to make any noise in March.
“He didn’t play very well in our two losses,” Miller said. “And tonight, to have him play like that (against USC), we’re a different team.”
But is Ayton the real X-factor?
Arizona seems to be at its best when Alkins is at his best, but he’s not UA’s X-factor in Miller’s mind.
That is Deandre Ayton.
“This team goes as Deandre goes,” Miller said. “His defense sets the tone for a lot. You have to realize that he’s 7-foot, 260 pounds. And we made our mind up after the UCLA game that instead of bouncing him back and forth and letting him guard multiple bigs to let him guard one of them, because it’s just so hard to go back and forth.”
Ayton was assigned to USC big man Bennie Boatwright, who was averaging 14 points per game entering Saturday’s contest.
Ayton held him to seven points on seven shots in 26 minutes. Miller said Ayton did a “really good job.”
“He is so gifted,” Miller said. “... It’s not his shot-blocking, it’s his quick movement away from the basket at his size. I thought he set the tone.“
Arizona’s offense was stellar against USC, shooting 56 percent from the field and 45 percent from 3, but its defense quietly had one of its best performances of the season.
The Wildcats held the Trojans’ offense, which ranked third in the conference, to 1.06 points per possession.
Taking USC’s normal proficiency into account, that was Arizona’s eighth-best defense outing of the season, per KenPom.
And that was just two days after UCLA shot 52 percent against the Wildcats.
“Our defense was night-and-day (against USC),” Miller said. “Even when they scored, they earned it. At the beginning of the second half, we reverted and we didn’t play with great effort and we weren’t connected and it felt that way. But other than that small window of time, I thought it was one of best overall performances because we played both (offense and defense).”
Ayton struggled a bit against UCLA (for his standards), but he responded with 18 points and 7 rebounds along with his tone-setting defense against the Trojans.
“Deandre was disappointed in his performance against UCLA. He didn’t have it that night,” Miller said. “When you say a young guy doesn’t have it and he has a double-double, it’s almost not fair, but all of the games we’ve watched him in, all of the practices, that was the one game that he just didn’t have that energy that he usually has.
“I think it was a great learning experience for him as well. How these teams and players are coming in here to attack us. When you have the reputation that he has and you’re playing Arizona, you’re going to give your best effort but he was ready tonight and he did a great job.“
Arizona’s bench provided a boost
Getting any production out of Arizona’s bench has been a challenge all season, so Miller met with them after the loss to UCLA so he could reiterate their importance.
“There are some guys right now that they might not fill the stat sheet, but their role in a game like tonight (vs. USC) is vital,” Miller said.
They responded well to that lecture, outscoring USC’s bench 8-7. More importantly they provided a spark on defense and the glass.
UA outrebounded USC, 40-22.
“We had more energy and even our bench played with extremely high level of energy today, and that was the reason why we won,” Ristic said. “Not only our starters played well, but the whole team.”
Miller thought the starters played too much against UCLA, which caused them to wear down as the game went on.
Saturday, Allonzo Trier was the only starter to play more than 33 minutes, and Arizona outscored USC 40-26 over the final 16 minutes.
”You have to believe in your bench, but they have to know what to do when they come in,” Miller said. “I thought our bench did a really good job. Ira (Lee), Keanu (Pinder), they came in and made positive plays.”
Lee’s plus/minus was +7. Pinder and Emmanuel Akot were +11.
“Emmanuel’s day will come. He’ll be eventually be a really good player, but right now we really need him to be a really good defender, a guy who takes care of the ball, and he did that tonight,” Miller said.
Miller encouraged by UA’s resiliency
Miller was obviously happy how Arizona responded from a devastating loss to UCLA. Here is a long comment he had about that:
”Every team that you’ve had that you look back on and say that was one of my favorite teams and that was one of my favorite players, I’ve yet to see a group have it every single night,” he said.
“Sometimes when you don’t have it you can still win and fix it right away. We didn’t have it (against UCLA) .... the way we reacted to that says a lot about our team. It’s blocking out the criticism, moving quickly to the next opponent, and controlling the things that we can control and we did that tonight.
“Let me just clarify this, UCLA is the hardest team in our conference to defend. Statistically, they’re the best offensive team in our conference. When they win games and they’ve won their fair share, they’re usually rolling on offense. So even with our best effort, they’re a difficult team to defend. I thought Aaron Holiday was a great player the other night and sometimes you have to tip your hat to the opponent. Did we play our best? No, we absolutely didn’t. But part of why it felt that way is because we didn’t play our best against a great offensive team.
“Tonight, we played against a very good offensive team and we played more together, we played harder, and I think it’s a lesson that we learned in the UCLA game that we were able to carry into the USC game. All of our teams of our different. We’ve had our challenges this year of being locked in defensively, but tonight we did a lot of good things.
“I’m anxious to show our team that because I keep showing them all the times they don’t do it, it’s nice when you can mix in a few times when they can.”
Pac-12 title picture
Arizona (20-6, 10-3) now holds a two-game lead atop the Pac-12 standings with five conference games left.
Two of those are at home against Cal and Stanford, and the other three are on the road at ASU, Oregon State, and Oregon.
It’s hard to imagine Arizona losing more than two of those games, so the Wildcats probably clinched a share of the Pac-12 title by dropping USC. And they can probably end the race altogether Thursday by beating ASU.
USC (8-5) and UCLA (8-5) still have to play each other one more time and make the Rocky Mountain road trip.
Washington (7-5) has four of its last six at home, but it just got swept by the Oregon schools.
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire