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Arizona’s defense proves too much for No. 7 Texas A&M in Phoenix

Arizona guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright, right, celebrates with a teammate after defeating Texas A&M 67-64 during an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Dec 5, 2017, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

PHOENIX — Arizona has its two star players this season in freshman center Deandre Ayton and junior guard Allonzo Trier.

What they didn’t have eight games into a season of going from No. 2 in the country to unranked was their defensive identity or much support for those two players.

Sean Miller’s teams in Tucson have always been primarily built to succeed through defense but entered Tuesday night’s game against No. 7 Texas A&M tied for 220th in the nation in points allowed per game at 74.1.

The Wildcats were also struggling to get much from their supporting cast offensively, a group that was without sophomore guard Rawle Alkins due to injury.

This has been clear from Miller’s rotations, as only those two stars and senior point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright are averaging above 20 minutes per game.

For the Wildcats to be an elite team, they would either need their defense of years past to return or get more offensively from those players to become a high-powered offensive team.

On Tuesday night, Arizona got a little bit of both in a 67-64 win in the first game of the Valley of the Sun Shootout at Talking Stick Resort Arena.

Despite Trier going scoreless in the first half and ending the night with only seven points, they got enough contributions elsewhere behind one of their better defensive efforts of the season.

“I thought this was our best defensive effort of the year,” Miller said after the game.

Sophomore redshirt guard Dylan Smith scored 11 of his 13 points in the first half, hitting three 3-pointers and freshman guard Brandon Randolph added 13. Both hit key free throws when Arizona had to hold onto a lead late. The two combined to average 10.8 points per game heading into the game.

A game that saw neither team lead by more than six points and both go through scoring droughts had one key possession with under two minutes left and the game tied at 58.

Trier was doubled with the shot clock winding down, and while trying to make his next basketball move on the right wing, he slipped. Trier, however, was able to somehow get the ball to Jackson-Cartwright in the right corner next to him and the senior buried a corner three to make it 61-58.

From there, it was about free throws and execution for the Wildcats, and while Randolph would miss two of the six he attempted, Arizona had enough of a cushion to be up three points on the final possession.

With six seconds left, Texas A&M senior guard Duane Wilson flew up the court and was fouled by Ayton shooting a 3-pointer with two seconds left.

“When you do it you have to do it at the half-court line,” Miller said of fouling when up three points. “That’s a lesson learned.”

After a review, Wilson missed the first free throw and Arizona survived.

While the Aggies were the favorites, a raucous crowd in favor of the Wildcats made them feel like the underdogs. They rode a terrific performance from senior center Tyler Davis, who scored 21 points on 12 shots.

It wasn’t felt so much in the entirety of the game, but Arizona’s eight turnovers in the first half were “disasters” according to Miller. A handful of those led to transition buckets for Texas A&M and a few were passes simply thrown right to an opposing player.

Much of the attention was on the matchup between Ayton and sophomore Robert Williams, who are both likely to be selected in the top-10 of the upcoming NBA Draft and had several key NBA decision makers in the building.

Neither draft prospect dominated. Ayton had 13 points and 10 rebounds while Williams recovered from a slow start and finished with four points, seven rebounds, two assists, two steals and two blocks, playing well defensively in the final 25 minutes of the game.

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