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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Lauri Markkanen hosts block party in Tempe, sparks Wildcats to Pac-12 Title

Simon Asher

Lauri Markkanen blocks a shot during the UA-ASU game on Saturday, March 4. Arizona beat Arizona State 73-60. 

It was a quiet game for Lauri Markkanen and the Arizona men’s basketball team during the first half, but then the Finnish freshman found his rhythm in an unusual way. Markkanen, known mostly as a versatile offensive threat for most of the season, had three blocks in a 73-60 win at ASU Saturday that not only changed the course of the game, but quite possibly the course of the season.

Markkanen had been struggling versus the Sun Devils with his shots the entire game, finishing just 3-for-10 from the floor and 10 points, including going 0-for-5 from 3-point range. However, the mark of every great player is finding ways to impact the game when your best weapon isn’t firing. Cue the defense for Markkanen.

With 10:22 left in the game and Arizona up by 9, ASU’s Shannon Evans dribbled around Markkanen and went to the basket. Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, Markkanen had set Evans up. What came next was a block so hard you would have thought Arizona just established its own men’s volleyball program.

The block came just after a Keanu Pinder missed layup, which normally would have symbolized a momentum shift in ASU’s favor, but the block thwarted any attempt at a Sun Devil rally. Fast-forward another three minutes, and it was Sun Devil forward Torian Graham’s turn.

“All of a sudden, the switch went on for him and he started to block shots,” said Arizona head coach Sean Miller. “He’s learning how to be more instinctive [and how] to use his size. … Today he really utilized both of those things to win the game for us.”

Graham slipped a screen and seemingly had a wide-open dunk coming his way, but the Finn wasn’t having it, coming across the court and blocking another shot, this time using power to stunt the attempt. It was a series of plays that cemented Arizona’s fourth regular season championship in the Pac-12 under Miller and may spark Markkanen to return to his old self on the offensive side of the ball.

“I think that was some of the best blocks I’ve ever seen,” said sophomore guard Allonzo Trier. “I think he did a great job changing the game for us, and it actually shifted momentum for us in a big way. Usually you see it on offense, but defensively he changed the game.”

For some players, defense can lead to offense, and Markkanen was notably more aggressive, with a certain swagger about him, after finishing a four-minute period with three blocks and returning the Wildcats to the top of the Pac-12.

“There is so much more than just scoring for Lauri,” said freshman guard Rawle Alkins. “He can rebound, he can finish around the basket and obviously he can play defense now, too.”

It remains to be seen if Markkanen can take his defense over to the offensive side of the ball, definitely one of the pieces Miller would like to have come tournament time. The thought prior to Saturday was that it would be hard for Arizona to go to the Final Four without Markkanen’s offensive presence, but after a performance such as his against ASU, I’m not so sure.

Follow Saul Bookman on Twitter.

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