In the waning moments of the first half Saturday at Pauley Pavilion, Allonzo Trier glided towards his own baseline, reeled in a one-handed rebound, and, 94 feet from where he needed to go, glanced up at the game clock. It showed 6.2 seconds. And, nearly 20 minutes into his long-awaited 2016/17 debut, Trier took off like he hadn’t done in what must have seemed like years.
Trier zoomed up the floor. He zigged over half court, then zagged into the lane. He dribbled five times, whizzed past five UCLA defenders, and laid in two points.
It was a coast-to-coast drive 71 days and 19 games in the making, a bucket that put No. 13 Arizona up 11 at halftime, and a symbolic highlight of an impressive all-around team win, 96-85 over the third-ranked Bruins.
It was also emblematic of a Pac-12 hoops landscape that looks markedly different than it did 24 hours ago, when Trier was still suspended and the Wildcats were lurking behind UCLA and Oregon. Now Trier is back, and the Wildcats are every bit the Pac-12 favorites that the Bruins were a month ago.
Trier missed the first two-plus months of the season after failing a drug test in September. The failed test, he claimed, was the result of a substance he unknowingly took, so he appealed to the NCAA and had the suspension overturned in December. Trier, however, wasn’t allowed to play until the drug had completely exited his system. That happened some time this week, and Arizona announced his return late Friday night.
The end-of-half layup wasn’t Trier’s only moment either. He had rained in a three less than a minute earlier, one of Arizona’s seven made triples in the opening 20 minutes.
In the second half, with UCLA having charged back to within two, Trier punctuated Arizona’s response with a flying one-handed jam in transition:
????: CBS https://t.co/DbP7VMfYH4
— Pac-12 Network (@Pac12Network) January 21, 2017
Lauri Markkanen drilled a three on the Wildcats’ very next possession to bump the lead back up to double digits. Shots like that were one of the differences in the game. Arizona hit nine of its 20 threes on the afternoon, while UCLA, the nation’s best three-point shooting team, made just 10 of its 31 attempts from beyond the arc.
But outside shooting wasn’t the only difference. Neither was Trier. Trier’s presence seemed to elevate the play of Kobi Simmons and Rawle Alkins, both of whom had received increased playing time and developed nicely in Trier’s absence. Simmons scored a team-high 20 points to go along with six rebounds and five assists.
Markkanen was similarly brilliant, and won the matchup against the player he essentially replaced. UCLA forward TJ Leaf had originally committed to Arizona in 2014, but reneged on his commitment less than a year later. That left Sean Miller with a hole to fill in his 2016 recruiting class, and he filled it with Markkanen, a 7-footer from Finland with a deadly outside stroke. Markkanen had 18 points on 6-of-10 shooting Saturday, and pulled down seven rebounds. In addition, he helped hold Leaf to 12 points and three boards.
Miller’s team also manipulated the speed of the game expertly. When opportunities to match UCLA’s tempo presented themselves, Arizona took them. When they didn’t, the Wildcats made a concerted effort to grind out halfcourt possessions and find high-quality shots. They did just that: Arizona averaged 19 seconds per possession to contrast UCLA’s average of 14.
The Wildcats also found those high-quality shots with a consistency that they hadn’t enjoyed all season. At one point six minutes into the second half, the Wildcats led 66-57, and were scoring at a clip of 1.44 points per possession. They ended the game at 1.32 points per trip.
Nobody completely stops UCLA’s offense; you can only hope to slow it down. And as Arizona learned Saturday in the second half, you can only slow it down for so long. In three-and-a-half second-half minutes, the Bruins went on a 13-3 sprint despite Arizona’s efforts to run clock and slow the pace. Lonzo Ball, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton all hit three-pointers. The lead was cut to 67-65.
But as Arizona did all game, it answered UCLA offense with offense of its own to hold off the hosts and move to 18-2 overall and 7-0 in the Pac-12. In doing so, the Wildcats dealt the Bruins their second conference loss.
They also announced themselves as the Pac-12 regular season title favorites, and should have grander goals in mind. Saturday truly was a season-altering day for Arizona.