Ayton records 21st double-double, Arizona pulls away late to beat Cal
TUCSON, Ariz. — Arizona coach Sean Miller grabbed the microphone to address the McKale Center when, just for a brief second, his voice broke.
“It’s been a tough week,” the usually-fiery coach said.
It could not have ended any better: With Miller cutting down the nets as Pac-12 champion for the fifth time in six seasons.
A week that started with Miller’s job in jeopardy ended in joy Saturday night with a Pac-12 clinching 66-54 victory over California.
“Devastating and the second word I would use is remarkable,” Miller said. “A lot lesser programs, teams, universities would have crumbled and we didn’t. That says something about us and our future.”
Miller’s future appeared to be in doubt after an ESPN report said the coach was caught on an FBI wiretap discussing a $100,000 payment to Deandre Ayton to attend the school.
Miller missed last weekend’s game against Oregon and sat out three practices as the school investigated. He vehemently denied the report in a statement on Thursday and, just a few hours later, university President Robert C. Robbins announced Miller would keep his job.
The Wildcats clinched a share of the Pac-12 title later that night with a victory over Stanford, setting up a chance to clinch it outright in the Arizona seniors’ final home game.
Instead of rolling over the last-place Bears, Arizona (24-7, 14-4) had a hard time shaking them, needing a 13-1 closing run to finish off the title and tumultuous week.
Ayton had 26 points and 20 rebounds, giving the Wildcats the lift they needed during an off night by second-leading scorer Allonzo Trier.
“Lot of emotions, an emotional week, a lot of things flying around,” Arizona point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright said. “Everybody was just drained mentally and physically.”
Cal had a chance to spoil Arizona’s party, bouncing back from a disappointing first game on the road trip through the desert. The Bears (8-23, 2-16) matched Arizona shot for shot in the first half and miss for miss in the second, keeping the Wildcats within reach until the final 4 minutes.
Justice Seung had 17 points to lead the Bears, who ended the regular season with seven straight losses.
“I feel really good about our guys’ effort, heart and determination against a very good basketball team,” Cal coach Wyking Jones said. “They followed the game plan, played with toughness and that’s all we ask of them.”
Cal held its own against the Wildcats in the first half by getting good penetration off the dribble, something it didn’t do in a lopsided loss to Arizona State on Thursday. The Bears took a 17-16 lead with a 7-0 run and rallied from 11 down to pull within 38-35 at halftime on Don Coleman’s lean-in 3-pointer at the buzzer.
Both teams shot well in the first half. Neither did to start the second, including with a combined scoreless streak that stretched past 4 minutes.
The Bears used a slowed-down game to their advantage keeping Arizona within reach until the Wildcats pieced together a 6-0 run to go up 61-53 with 2 1/2 minutes left and kept going from there.
“We turned it over and it didn’t feel like we got a really good look the last couple possessions, so that was kind of the difference in the game,” Jones said.
Cal bounced back nicely from its 31-point loss to Arizona State with a solid performance that should give it a boost headed into next week’s Pac-12 Tournament.
Arizona looked lackluster at times against the Pac-12’s last-place team on a night when it should have been motivated to send its seniors off in a blowout. The Wildcats found a way to close it out, earning the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament.
Three key Arizona players had rough nights in their final home games. Trier, who’s expected to leave after his junior season, scored two points on 1-of-10 shooting. Jackson-Cartwright and fellow senior Dusan Ristic combined for seven points.
“It means so much to them, they want to play well and it almost works against them,” Miller said.
Arizona honored its seniors — including regulars Jackson-Cartwright, Ristic and Keanu Pinder — after the game, but Miller took it a step further. In the past, he has not acknowledged players who were expected to leave early for the NBA draft. He did with Saturday night, saying they would leave early and thanking Ayton, Trier and Rawle Alkins in front of the home crowd.
Arizona has a first-round bye in the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas and will play on Thursday.
Cal opens the Pac-12 Tournament Wednesday as the No. 12 seed.