THE Arizona Wildcats were locked into another close game down the stretch when they turned to their freshman phenom to deliver in the clutch.
DeAndre Ayton made a pair of jumpers on consecutive possessions to help the Wildcats pull away for an 88-82 win over the Alabama Crimson Tide at the McKale Center in Tuscon, Arizona, on Saturday.
Ayton finished with 29 points and 18 rebounds, both season highs.
Asked about where his confidence originates to take those shots with the game on the line as a freshman, Ayton said it was a matter of routine.
“I don’t know,” he said. “That’s the shot I shoot in practice. I work on it. It was open to me and I thought it was a good shot. I’m just happy we got the win, it was a tough game.”
The 18 rebounds were tied for the fourth most by a Arizona freshman, and were the most by any Wildcat since Aaron Gordon grabbed 18 rebounds versus Wisconsin in the 2014 NCAA Tournament.
Tied at 76 with 3:18 left to play, Ayton gave Arizona the lead with a tip-in and followed with one of two at the line on the ensuing possession. Nursing a 79-77 lead, Ayton made both jumpers under the two-minute mark to give Arizona a six-point lead.
“DeAndre was the difference,” Wildcats head coach Sean Miller said. “I just have a hard time believing there is anybody better than him, I just do. I don’t want to hear anything about his motor. They’re almost fabricating or inventing things that aren’t true.”
Ayton shot 12-18 from the field and made one of his two three-point attempts.
“He does what he does. It’s like routine for us now, we expect him to dominate, we expect to go to him and for him to do well,” Allonzo Trier said.
Trier scored 20 of his 25 points in the second half.
Arizona began the year ranked at No.2 but plummeted from the top 25 after a winless appearance at the Battle 4 Atlantis with losses to NC State, SMU and Purdue. The Wildcats (7-3) notched their second marquee win of the week, following a huge win over No. 7 Texas A & M.
Alabama (7-3) made the score 84-80 on with 34 seconds left to play, but Trier made free throws down the stretch to seal the win.
Arizona had an early 10-0 run that put them up 24-13. The Crimson Tide fought back behind their defence, using a 13-2 run to tie it at 26-all. Ayton nearly had a double double at halftime with 15 points and nine rebounds, but Alabama made a late three to take a 40-38 lead.
“I knew where we were, were six games in at the time. We had five or six guys that are newcomers and hadn’t played much college basketball so that was an eye opening experience for them,” Trier said of the Battle 4 Atlantis and the way forward for the ‘Cats.
“Us upperclassmen and guys that have been there before we have to do a much better job. We weren’t on top of our games like we should have been. We have been working hard, focusing on the right things, challenging each other in practice and coach Miller is doing the right job of preparing us.”