LAS VEGAS — Deandre Ayton dribbled through the sea of red-and-white confetti, bobbing and weaving past cheerleaders and fans. The Arizona big man came upon a security guard, dropped a spin move that left both smiling and headed to the locker room.
Ayton’s night at the Pac-12 championship was just as smooth a ride.
Ayton had 32 points and 18 rebounds in one of the most dominating performances in Pac-12 Tournament history, leading No. 15 Arizona to its second straight title with a 75-61 victory over Southern California on Saturday night.
“The dominance he just put forth, if there’s another player better, I’d like to meet him,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “He put his team on his back, played the right way and absolutely was a one-man wrecking crew.”
Ayton put on a show along The Strip, bouncing back from a nervous Pac-12 opener against Colorado with two dominating games.
The Bahamian big man had 32 points and 14 rebounds in a semifinal win over UCLA and knocked the Trojans (23-11) around like bowling pins in the championship game. Ayton made 14 of 20 shots from the floor and all four of his free throws to lead Arizona (27-8) to its ninth Pac-12 title.
“I was a little starstruck, I wasn’t ready, rushing all of my shots against Colorado, not taking my time,” said Ayton, who matched the Pac-12 freshman record set by UCLA’s Kevin Love with his 23rd double-double. “Coach told me to face up, see what the defense is giving me and that’s what I did.”
USC gave Arizona trouble with its zone at times and had a decent offensive night. The Trojans just had no answer for Ayton.
“I don’t think you’re going to stop a guy like that, so we just have to try to do our best to contain him,” said Nick Rakocevic, led USC with 13 points. “Although he went off tonight.
Both teams fought through adversity to reach the title game.
Arizona was twice entangled in a federal investigation into shady recruiting practices. USC was named in the probe as well, leading to sophomore De’Anthony Melton to be ruled ineligible this season.
The Trojans also have played without Bennie Boatright since Feb. 15, when he suffered a season-ending knee injury, and backup point guard Derryck Thornton missed the semifinals due to an illness.
In the title game, USC had success getting into the lane and with its pick-and-roll on offense while giving the Wildcats trouble with its zone.
Arizona had success getting to the offensive glass — eight in the first half — and by getting the ball to Ayton, who had 13 points and eight rebounds by halftime.
USC led 33-30.
“We had a three-point lead at halftime in a Pac-12 championship,” USC coach Andy Endfield said. “That’s what you play for, that’s what you dream about.”
But Ayton continued to be a nightmare in the second half and USC went down a big man when Chimezie Metu picked up his fourth foul with 12 minutes left.
Arizona took off from there — literally.
Rawle Alkins brought the pro-Arizona crowd to a roar with a two-handed dunk over Elijah Stewart and Ayton followed with another dunk to make it even louder, putting Arizona up 53-46.
Ayton kept dunking and the crowd kept roaring until the confetti cannons went off.
USC: likely locked up a spot in the NCAA Tournament after its semifinal victory, but might sweat a little on Selection Sunday
Arizona: looking like one of the nation’s best teams at just the right time and should get a high seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Alkins’ dunk over Stewart caused maybe the loudest of the night in T-Mobile Arena and still had Arizona’s players talking long after the game.
“It took me a few seconds to realize what happened,” Arizona center Dusan Ristic said. “It was one of the best dunks I’d ever seen in my life.”
USC: will play in the postseason, hoping it will be in the NCAA Tournament.
Arizona: will play in the NCAA Tournament, most likely as a high seed.