Sean Miller? Back. Allonzo Trier? Back.
The Arizona Wildcats’ dominance in the Pac-12? Also back.
Arizona (23-7, 13-4) beat the Stanford Cardinal, 75-67, on Thursday night to clinch a share of the Pac-12 title, pushing the controversy surrounding the program aside.
“Well, tonight was obviously a very emotional night. But it’s one that’s about our team and what we accomplished,” Miller said. “Winning a Pac-12 regular season championship is a goal of ours.”
Dusan Ristic, now UA’s all-time wins leader, scored 21 points in his penultimate home game.
Trier, whose PED suspension was lifted roughly two hours before tip off, added 18 points and four assists after missing the last two games.
Deandre Ayton, whose eligibility is no longer in question, chipped in with 12 points and 10 rebounds as he battled fouled trouble.
Miller’s stats? Three standing ovations.
The UA head coach, who earlier in the day strongly denied an ESPN report that said he discussed paying a recruit $100,000, twice emerged from the tunnel before tipoff to a thunderous applause from the standing UA faithful.
Miller waved his arm in the air as acknowledgement as he neared mid-court. A “U of A” chant broke out and some fans flashed signs that said “We stand with Coach Miller” and “Vindicated” among other things.
He got a deafening round of cheers as he paced onto the court to begin the second half, too. Miller had missed Saturday’s game at Oregon after ESPN’s report broke.
Arizona head coach Sean Miller returns after a 1-game absence pic.twitter.com/ZnxZb8dxOd— FOX College Hoops (@CBBonFOX) March 2, 2018
“I really didn’t know what to think about it other than it’s just very, very emotional,” Miller said of the fans’ reaction. “Tucson and our fans, they’ve always been the very, very best to my family and myself. They’ve supported our basketball program like no other and to see them do that was very emotional, and it was something I’ll never, ever forget.”
The Wildcats turned that emotion into an early lead. Trier sank a 3 — his first shot attempt since being reinstated — to quickly put Arizona up 5-0.
“I’m back!” he yelled as turned to the crowd.
Parker Jackson-Cartwright then weaved into the lane and scored over Stanford’s bigs to put Arizona up 15-9.
Then UA’s energy turned into sloppiness and poor defensive execution.
The Wildcats had seven turnovers midway through the first half, while Stanford shot 60 percent, making nine of its first 15 shots.
Cardinal big man Oscar Da Silva rolled to the basket for an uncontested dunk to put Stanford up 20-19.
Miller called timeout to reorganize UA’s defense, and it worked. The Cardinal only scored eight more points in the final 10 minutes of the period.
“Our defense was good at the end,” Miller said. “Timeouts probably get too much credit or too much blame. There’s really no magic wand. I thought we were winded at that point in the game. So we were able to sub and maybe get our feet back under us.”
Meanwhile, as Ayton picked up two fouls in the first 13 minutes, Ristic carried Arizona’s offense, dropping 15 first-half points, scoring inside and out.
A Trier jumper gave Arizona a 12-point lead with 2:02 left, its largest of the game, but Stanford would cut that to 37-28 heading into the break.
Arizona had difficulty pulling away in the second half, but Stanford could not get the deficit below five.
Reid Travis, who finished with 23 points and 10 rebounds, scored inside to make it a 64-56 game with just under six minutes left. But Jackson-Cartwright countered with a step-back 3 to extend UA’s lead to 11 with 5:29 left.
Stanford answered with a 7-2 run over the next 4:21 to make it a five-point game with 1:10 left. But Trier drew a foul in the lane, and sank two free throws to end Stanford’s comeback bid.
Trier was 4-of-10 from the field, but 9-of-10 from the charity stripe.
Arizona shot 53 percent and held Stanford to 41 percent shooting, despite the Cardinal’s hot start.
After the game, a graphic was displayed on the jumbotron congratulating Ristic on his record-breaking 111th career win.
“It means a lot as a result of my hard work, and as a result of the culture of this program, of all of the players that I have played with since my freshman year, all the way through this year,” Ristic said. “And I’m just privileged that I have accomplished something like that at this program. So, it’s something that’s going to stay forever in my life, and I’m just happy about it.”
Miller added: “For all the great seniors ... that have won championships and so many big games (here), I think that’s a testament not only to the type of player Dusan has become, but also the type of young man that he is,” Miller said. “He’s really one of a kind. So for him to do that on a night like tonight really brought it all together for us.”
Ristic thought the Wildcats showed great resiliency after a difficult week. One that started with Miller completely away from the team as the University decided his fate, and Trier’s status unclear.
“It was tough. It was really tough,” Ristic said. “Obviously, we lost our coach, and then we lost Allonzo on that Oregon trip, and that was kind of a kind of completely new thing for us. We didn’t know how to react, we didn’t know what to do. It was a lot of stuff going on outside of our program, outside of our team that was affecting us.
“I think we handled it really, really well. I think this team showed great resiliency, even though like I said there was a lot negative energy around our program. I think we showed how tough we are, not only on the court but off the court as well.”
The now-surging Wildcats wrap up the regular season Saturday at 4:30 p.m. MST against the California Golden Bears. Arizona would clinch the Pac-12 title outright with a victory.
Miller thinks all the adversity the team has faced — and there’s been a lot, he acknowledged — could help his team in the long run.
Ristic took that a step further, saying Arizona is ready to play its best basketball of the season now that it’s all systems go again.
“We don’t have a choice,” he said. “We have to use that as motivation for the rest of the year. I think we can flip the story, we can make a run in the tournament and then we can change the whole situation.
“Like, two days ago everybody was against us. The whole nation, even some of you guys (the media) were against us. And I think we’re going to use it as motivation. And from this point on, I think the whole thing made us stronger. Much tougher as a team. And I think we’re going to try to do something special now.”
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire