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If Arizona really paid $100,000 to land prized freshman Deandre Ayton last year, the Wildcats still got a heck of a bargain.
Ayton showed why he’ll soon be worth way more than that on Saturday night with a thoroughly impressive performance under tough circumstances.
The potential No. 1 pick in this year’s draft scored 28 points, grabbed 18 rebounds and blocked four shots in Arizona’s 98-93 overtime loss at Oregon. Ayton might have tallied even more than that had the 7-foot-1 forward’s teammates not failed to get him the ball late in regulation and in overtime, enabling the Ducks to rally from a 13-point second-half deficit and pull the upset.
Ayton played with unusual anger and intensity Saturday night in his first game since an ESPN.com report cast doubt on his college eligibility.
The story alleged that an FBI wiretap intercepted Arizona head coach Sean Miller discussing making a $100,000 payment to ensure that Ayton chose the Wildcats. The FBI had tapped the phone of Christian Dawkins, the 24-year-old associate of agent Andy Miller who is a key figure in the federal investigation into bribery and corruption in college basketball.
Lorenzo Romar coached Arizona on Saturday night in Sean Miller’s absence after he and the school agreed it was in the Wildcats’ best interests for him not to be on the bench. Miller has not yet been suspended or fired, but his status going forward is uncertain. Romar told reporters in Eugene after the game that he doesn’t know how long he’ll be running the team.
It was a huge surprise that Arizona did not also sit Ayton on Saturday night given the severity of the allegations against him. The Wildcats risked playing a potentially ineligible player depending on whether the NCAA can prove that he actually received any money.
The Oregon student section heckled Ayton from the opening tip off until the final buzzer on Saturday night in a failed attempt to get in his head. One student waived a cardboard cutout of a 100 Grand candy bar. Another had a giant $100,000 check from Miller to Ayton. And the entire student section serenaded Ayton with various chants the whole night, from “Wire Tap” to “Hundred Thousand” to “Where’s the money?”
Not only was Ayton not distracted, it seemed to bring out the best in him. He had 17 points and 11 rebounds by halftime, none more impressive than this soaring transition slam.
“You look at his play tonight, and it seemed like he handled it pretty well,” Romar said. “I thought he did a great job and handled it in a very mature fashion.”
The biggest problem for Arizona was that it couldn’t stop Oregon in the second half and its offense was not as effective it went away from Ayton. With Allonzo Trier sidelined for the second straight game as a result of a PED suspension, the Wildcats had to lean heavily on Rawle Alkins and Parker Jackson-Cartwright for perimeter offense.
Dylan Smith sank a deep 3-pointer with 20 seconds left in regulation to get Arizona to overtime, but Oregon controlled the extra period. Elijah Brown finished with 30 points and Mikyle McIntosh had 20 as the Ducks prevented Arizona from clinching at least a share of the Pac-12 title.
What happens next for Arizona? Will the Wildcats have Trier or Ayton in their lineup? Or Miller on the bench? None of that is clear at this time.
What is clear is that Ayton is an absolute monster who is apparently mentally tough enough to play his best despite a rough week and a hostile crowd.
He didn’t speak to reporters Saturday, but a postgame tweet offered insight into his mindset.
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