Playing his final game in McKale Center, Deandre Ayton made it one to remember.
The big man broke UA’s all-time freshman scoring record, tallying 26 points and 20 rebounds as the Arizona Wildcats held off a pesky Cal team, 66-54, to win the Pac-12 title outright.
It was the 21st double-double of the season for Ayton, who upped his career scoring total to 616, surpassing Jerryd Bayless (592) atop the all-time freshman leaderboard.
“Don’t get lost in the shuffle what you witnessed today,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said afterward. “You saw a player score 26 points and have 20 rebounds in a very low-possession game. You could watch games in McKale for the next 10 years and not see that ever happen again.
“Deandre didn’t need an exclamation point, but he certainly put one on his freshman year.”
It was a historic day for Ayton, who will likely be a top-three pick in June’s NBA draft, and Arizona certainly needed it.
The Wildcats shot just 39 percent from the field, including a dismal 27 percent in the second half, as they struggled to put away the last-place Bears, who led at one point in the second half.
Arizona did not get much from usual contributors like Dusan Ristic and Allonzo Trier. Ristic, a senior playing his final home game, had 6 points on 1-of-9 shooting.
Trier tallied a career-low 2 points, and was held scoreless until late in the second half.
“Tonight wasn’t really about our performance on the court. I think the bigger picture here is that we clinched an outright regular season championship, which in today’s world of March Madness I know sometimes can be lost in the shuffle,” Miller said.
Tied at 53 with 5:28 left, Ayton was fouled while soaring for an offensive rebound and made both ensuing free throws to give UA the lead. He was then fouled on a lob from Trier and made two more free throws to make it 57-53 with 3:37 to play
Trier then stripped Justice Sueing on the perimeter and went the other way for a breakaway layup, his first points of the game.
Then a hook shot by Ayton put Arizona up eight with 2:31 left. The Wildcats commanded the game from there on.
“We did not play well,” Miller admitted. “Having played in a number of games like this, you want it to be easy and it’s not going to be easy. And when it’s not easy, you start to put that pressure on yourself. We played with a heavy burden really for about 30 of the 40 minutes where we pressed.
“Allonzo wasn’t himself, and even Dusan and Parker (Jackson-Cartwright), it means so much to those guys that they want to play well. It can sometimes work against them. But it was just simply tonight about being able to win the game, and close this chapter our season and hopefully move forward with a lot of energy and able to play our best basketball.”
Since Arizona finally pulled away late, it was able to give its seniors a proper send off.
Ristic’s was the highlight. As the big man checked out for the last time in McKale Center, he ripped off his jersey and fired it into the crowd, uncovering a shirt that said “Thank you Arizona” on one side and “Dusan loves Tucson” on the other, before doing his infamous “top” celebration.
In his final moments in McKale Center, Dusan Ristic rips off his jersey revealing a “Dusan loves Tucson” shirt. What a moment. pic.twitter.com/JpQrx7VJyL— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) March 4, 2018
After the game the 7-footer led the Wildcats through crowd, receiving high five after high five from the UA faithful.
“I think the fact he went 1-for-9 tonight in this type of game backs up what I mean from this perspective — he loves college basketball. He loves the University of Arizona. He loves Tucson,” Miller said. “You don’t do what he did at the end of the game — pull off your uniform and have a special t-shirt to thank the fans (if you’re 1-for-9). That guy is just an incredible kid and we’re very, very lucky to have him.”
Fellow senior Jackson-Cartwright called the day “surreal.”
“I don’t think it has settled in yet with me,” he said. “But this is the best place in the country. The fans are so loyal. They’ve stuck with us through the ups and downs.”
Arizona also honored three underclassmen — Ayton, Trier, and Rawle Alkins — after the game in addition to its seniors. Miller confirmed that all three will leave for the NBA at the end of the season.
“A lot of the players that you watched play tonight won’t be here next year,” Miller said. “And you really just try to soak it all in and enjoy it and make it last as long as you can.
“Those guys deserved an ovation just like the seniors because they’re not going to play in McKale again.”
The Wildcats finish the regular season 24-7 overall and 14-4 in conference play, clinching the No. 1 seed in the Pac-12 Tournament. It will play the winner of the Colorado-ASU game in the quarterfinals on Thursday at 1 p.m. MST in Las Vegas.
Arizona looked like it was going to run away with Saturday’s game early, jumping out to a 14-8 lead, but Cal strung together a 9-2 run capped by a Darius McNeill 3 to take a 17-16 lead.
After a timeout, Arizona answered with a 14-4 run and Ayton, who had 14 points and 11 rebounds in the first half, hit a desperation 3 to make it 30-21. Then dunks by the big man helped UA extend that to 38-28 with 1:10 left.
But the Bears scored seven points in the final minute, including a Don Coleman buzzer-beating 3, to trail just 38-35 at the break.
Cal shot 50 percent in the first half as Arizona struggled to keep it away from the basket. 26 of the Bears’ 35 first-half points were scored in the paint.
Cal scored the first four points of the second half to grab a 39-38 lead, but Ayton made two free throws, then Alkins scored inside, allowing Arizona to re-take a 43-39 lead. The Wildcats had missed their first six shots of the second half.
Dylan Smith hit a 3 to extend Arizona’s lead to 47-42 with 10:59 left, but then fouled Coleman on a 3. He made two of the three free throws, then later made a pair to cut Cal’s deficit to 49-48 with 9:18 left.
Juhwan Harris-Dyson split two free throws to tie it with 7:47 left and Cal later tied it again with just under six minutes left before the Wildcats finally took control, ending a rollercoaster week on a high note.
Jackson-Cartwright admitted that Arizona is drained “mentally and physically” after losing (then getting back) Trier and its head coach, but called Saturday’s net-cutting a “storybook ending.”
“We fought. Our team has been resilient all year, and we’ve taken a lot of punches,” he said. We always respond in the right way. We never get down on ourselves, never feel sorry for ourselves. We keep grinding. To cut down the nets at home this year with all we’ve been through, it was really special.”
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire