LAS VEGAS — Deandre Ayton admitted he was nervous when he first took the floor at T-Mobile Arena on Thursday.
“The arena is huge and we’re really about to play a game on this court,” he thought to himself as he spotted a large contingent of fans sitting in the nosebleeds of the 20,000-seat arena.
And all that uneasiness resulted in one of the most uneventful performances of Ayton’s noteworthy career, as he had just 10 points and 6 rebounds on 4-of-14 shooting in a win over Colorado.
Ayton was much more comfortable in the venue Friday.
It was the 22nd double-double of the season for Ayton, propelling the Wildcats to their fourth Pac-12 tourney title game in the last five years. The Wildcats will play USC for the crown Saturday.
“Today I was locked in,” Ayton said. “I was ready.”
Ayton was 13-of-16 from the field, and scored the first seven points of overtime, as Arizona outscored UCLA 11-0 in the period.
Frontcourt partner Dusan Ristic used one word to describe Ayton’s game.
“Beast,” he said. “Nothing else.”
Ayton was a steadying force for an Arizona offense that mostly struggled otherwise. The Wildcats shot 44 percent from the field and 29 percent from 3. Ristic, Rawle Alkins and Allonzo Trier combined for just 32 points on 39 shots.
“He’s a special talent,” Alkins said of Ayton. “I see it every day in practice, so it’s nothing new to me. ... It’s just another day in the office for him.”
Parker Jackson-Cartwright was Arizona’s second-most valuable player. The diminutive senior point guard was 3-of-5 from 3, and more importantly helped hold UCLA point guard Aaron Holiday to 15 points on 5-of-20 shooting.
Holiday had scored 34 points in each of his last two games.
“Parker, he really met the challenge,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “There aren’t many guards that can play the minutes that Parker did, 38, and defend Holiday at the level that he defended him from start to finish.
“Aaron maybe didn’t have his typical big game, but I think that Parker did a great job, as did our team, of trying to not let him beat us. We were well aware that he came into the game scoring 68 points the last two games.”
Jackson-Cartwright said his goal was simply to make things tough for Holiday anyway he could.
“I’ve been watching him the last couple games and he’s been hot, and I know I can use some of my advantages to stop scorers,” he said. “My quickness, getting under people, making it tough for them. Coach challenged me because I had that matchup and I rose to the challenge.”
Holiday was stifled, but UCLA center Thomas Welsh was not. The senior posted 17 points and 17 rebounds, and even made three 3s.
One of those 3s tied the game with 1:53 left in regulation.
“If Thomas Welsh was going to bang a bunch of 3s, if (Kris) Wilkes was going to have a big night, maybe we don’t win,” Miller said. “But we didn’t want Aaron Holiday to do to us what he’s done recently. It took a lot of effort, but Parker took the challenge, and I thought our team supported him.”
After Welsh’s game-tying triple, Ayton answered right back with a layup to give the Wildcats a 67-65 lead with 1:09 left.
That would remain the score until UCLA freshman Jaylen Hands weaved through the lane for a layup to knot the game at 67 with just eight seconds left.
Alkins traveled on Arizona’s ensuing inbounds play, leaving 1.9 seconds for UCLA to win the game, but a contested 3 from Holiday fell short, sending the game into overtime, where the Bruins failed to score a single point.
Arizona is the only team in Pac-12 Tournament history to hold its opponent scoreless in an overtime period.
“Offensively I think we can score on anyone. I think we have the best team in the country,” Alkins said. “But when our defense is rolling, it’s tough to stop us.”
UCLA eviscerated Arizona’s defense in the lone regular season matchup between these teams, but the Wildcats held the Bruins to 40 percent shooting and a dismal 10-of-35 mark from 3.
“Stopping the ball on pick-and-rolls and defending the 3-point shots, I thought that’s what we did really well,” Ristic said. “They didn’t score in the overtime and that’s the reason we won.”
Also because Arizona flipped the script on the glass. The Bruins outrebounded the Wildcats 22-13 in the first half, including a 6-0 edge in offensive boards.
That allowed UCLA to take a 30-26 lead in the locker room, despite shooting below 40 percent.
Arizona outrebounded the Bruins 29-11 in the second half plus overtime.
“At the end of the first half, Coach Miller got on us about not having offensive rebounds,” Ayton said. “UCLA was kicking our butt on the glass.”
”That was probably the only thing that we talked about,” Miller said. “We had zero offensive rebounds. If you’re our team, you can’t do that. It’s the only game this year that we had not one offensive rebound, and UCLA had some killer second shots in the first half. It’s not often that you can turn that around. We had 10 second shots in the second half.”
Both teams hoisted 3 after 3 in the first half, but did not have much success. The Bruins were 4-of-17 from distance, while the Wildcats were just 3-of-13.
The Bruins only shot 38 percent in the period, but made six of their first 12 shots to take a 15-8 lead with 13:42 left.
Arizona would take a 23-22 lead after consecutive baskets by Alkins with 4:35 left, but would only score three more points — an Alkins 3 — the rest of the half, allowing the Bruins to take a four-point lead into the locker room.
Alkins had a game-high nine points in the first half on 4-of-6 shooting, while Ayton had 7 points and 6 rebounds on 3-of-4 shooting.
The rest of the Wildcats were just 4-of-17 from the field.
“The way we played in the first half, the four-point deficit was pretty good for us,” Ristic said. “We were aware of that and we just played harder and tougher in defense.”
Arizona began the second half on a 7-0 run, which took just 89 seconds, and made 11 of its first 13 shots of the period to take a 50-43 lead with 13:10 left.
Arizona then missed seven of its next eight shots, but was able to hold onto a narrow lead until an airball by Trier led to a thunderous dunk for Wilkes in transition, which tied the game at 60 with 4:41 left.
Another dunk by Wilkes would tie the game with 2:39 left in regulation. Welsh tied the game with a 3 with 1:53 left. But the Bruins were never able to regain the lead.
“It was a tie game, all the momentum was to them and we gave it our all,” Alkins said. “Deandre speaks for himself. He played great and we just played through it.”
Arizona was able to avenge its regular season loss to UCLA, and now has a chance to win its second consecutive Pac-12 Tournament championship.
In a way, this where Arizona is expected to be. After all, it is the No. 1 seed in the tournament and the most talented team in the conference.
Then again, just two weeks ago, Arizona was without Trier and Miller, and the program had been rocked to its core.
In that sense, making it to the Pac-12 Tournament championship game wasn’t always such a probable outcome.
But here they are anyway.
“One of the biggest wins of our season,” Jackson-Cartwright said. “Maybe the biggest. We have a lot of fire because people have doubted us and everything we’ve been through. To get a win like this means a lot.”
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire