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Deandre Ayton dominates to lead Arizona past USC for Pac-12 title

Arizona freshman celebrates one of his monster dunks during the Wildcats' win against USC in the Pac-12 Conference men's basketball championship game.
Ethan Miller / Getty Images North America
Arizona freshman celebrates one of his monster dunks during the Wildcats’ win against USC in the Pac-12 Conference men’s basketball championship game.


LAS VEGAS — After he fouled out at the end of a very quiet game in his first appearance in the Pac-12 Conference tournament Thursday against the Colorado Buffaloes, Arizona freshman Deandre Ayton admitted some nerves got the best of him.

Ayton brought plenty of noise the rest of the way.

The Wildcats’ 7-foot-1 rookie forward showed why he swept the league’s Player of the Year and Newcomer of the Year awards over his final two games at T-Mobile Arena, leading top-seeded and 15th-ranked Arizona to a 75-61 victory against USC Saturday night in the Pac-12 Conference championship game at T-Mobile Arena.

It was the Wildcats’ second consecutive conference tournament championship and the program’s seventh overall. It also was UA’s third in the past four seasons under coach Sean Miller, whose participation in the postseason appeared in doubt just two weeks ago when an ESPN report alleged that he was caught on an FBI wiretap arranging a $100,000 payment to a recruit that was cited as Ayton.

“Deandre, his heart always is in the right place,” Miller said. “That’s the starting point for everything. Not a lot of guys would admit they’re a little bit nervous. Sometimes you forget he’s young, 19-years old. This is his first Pac-12 tournament. That’s why it’s important you’re part of a good team, a good program, because Deandre relies on his teammates to have his back.

“That struggle, if you can really call it a struggle, to me prepared him for the last two games. I think this tournament will really prepare him for next week. And our team.”

Ayton finished with 32 points and 18 rebounds, breaking his own team record for rebounds in a Pac-12 tournament game he set one day earlier while finishing in a tie for the second-most points by a Wildcats player in a Pac-12 tourney game.

Overall, Ayton’s 32 points tied the seventh-most by any player in the Pac-12 tournament, and he fell just two rebounds shy of the league tournament record set by Cal’s Leon Powe in 2006.

After fouling out with only 10 points, six rebounds, and a 4-for-14 mark from the floor against the Buffaloes in the quarterfinals on Thursday, Ayton went a ridiculous 27-for-36 in Arizona’s wins against UCLA and USC. Saturday’s effort also was Ayton’s 23rd double-double of the season, matching Kevin Love’s 2008 total for the most by a freshman in Pac-12 history.

“I’ll do whatever it takes to win,” Ayton said. “I play hard and I give my all. Having the teammates that I have that have my back, and they know that I have their back…it makes me go all-out for them.

“I was a little star-struck. I wasn’t ready, to be honest. I was rushing all my shots against Colorado. I wasn’t taking my time. Coach told me to take my time, face up and see what the defense is giving me, and that’s what I did.”

Arizona took the lead for good when Ayton broke a 41-41 tie with a 3-point play at the 11 minute, 49-second mark of the second half. The Wildcats steadily pulled away from there, pushing the lead to 10 points with just under six minutes remaining.

Ayton and fellow 7-footer Dusan Ristic made it a miserable night for USC big man Chimezie Metu, who battled foul trouble before finishing with just seven points and four rebounds. Ayton was named the tournament MVP and was joined on the all-tournament team by Ristic, who recorded 16 points, five rebounds, three assists, and two steals.

Nick Rakocevic paced USC’s offense with 13 points, but he was held scoreless after halftime.

Ayton also led the Wildcats to a whopping 42-19 rebounding advantage.

Pat Rooney: or

Arizona 75, USC 61

At T-Mobile Arena

USC (23-11)

Metu 2-6 3-7 7, Rakocevic 6-7 1-2 13, Mathews 4-12 2-2 11, McLaughlin 5-11 1-3 12, Stewart 3-7 1-2 7, Aaron 1-2 0-00 3, Usher 3-8 0-0 8, Thornton 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 24-53 8-16 61.

Arizona (27-7)

Ayton 14-20 4-4 32, Ristic 3-13 0-0 16, Jackson-Cartwright 3-7 2-2 10, Alkins 2-6 1-2 6, Trier 3-6 2-2 9, Smith 0-5 2-3 2, Akot 0-0 0-0 0, Pinder 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 30-58 11-13 75.

USC 33 28 — 61

Arizona 30 45 — 75

3-point field goals — USC 5-19 (Mathews 1-6, McLaughlin 1-2, Stewart 0-4, Aaron 1-2, Usher 2-5); Arizona 4-17 (Jackson-Cartwright 2-5, Alkins 1-4, Trier 1-3, Smith 0-5). Rebounds — USC 19 (Rakocevic 6); Arizona 42 (Ayton 18). Assists — USC 13 (McLaughlin 9); Arizona 16 (Jackson-Cartwright 5). Total fouls — USC 13; Arizona 15. Fouled out — Alkins.