TUCSON, Ariz. -- There was a duststorm that closed down parts of I-10 between Phoenix and Tucson on Saturday. Inside the frenzied McKale Center, there was a "white out," with fans garbed in white to celebrate Arizona's return to the nation's elite as it squared off with black-clad Washington in a critical Pac-10 matchup.
Surrounded by these maelstroms, there was a monster, too. At least, that's how Washington coach Lorenzo Romar described Arizona forward Derrick Williams.
"Derrick Williams was obviously a monster," Romar said.
The description seemed apt. After all, it was Williams' monstrous swat of short jumper from Darnell Gant with a single tick left on the clock that put an exclamation point on the Wildcats’ thrilling 87-86 victory. It was Williams' ferocious 26 points and 11 rebounds -- both game highs -- that were the cornerstones of an eighth consecutive victory. The win puts the 13th-ranked Wildcats on the cusp of their first regular-season Pac-10 title since 2005 with four games to play.
That block prevented a seventh and final lead change taking place over the final nine minutes of a chippy, physical game. And it was awfully close to a goaltend.
"Luckily, they didn't call the goaltend," Williams said. "I believe if we were at Washington, they might have called that. Good thing we were at home."
Arizona, unbeaten at home, improved to 23-4 overall and 12-2 in the Pac-10. Washington, the preseason conference favorite, fell to 18-8 and 10-5 in the conference, which is now a two-team race between the Wildcats and UCLA. The Bruins take a 10-3 conference mark to California on Sunday and will play host to Arizona on Feb. 26.
But what most inspired the 14,619 fans who packed the McKale Center was a sense that Williams and coach Sean Miller are leading the Wildcats back under the Klieg lights of the Big Dance. After a 25-year NCAA tournament appearance streak ended last season, Arizona will not only be dancing in March, it likely will do so as a high seed.
Oh, the coach and the players talked the talk of just focusing on the task at hand -- you know, got to win the Pac-10 first -- but everyone knows the program has traveled a vast distance in Miller's second season.
"Going back to last year, we never had any feeling like this," Williams said.
Washington didn't make it easy. It rarely is for the Wildcats, who won a triple-overtime classic at Cal on Feb. 5 and have two other conference wins by a single basket.
Arizona led the entire first half and boosted its lead to 12 early in the second. The Huskies, however, started pushing the pace and making shots -- they got their first tie at 68-68 with 9:14 left -- most particularly Matthew Bryan-Amaning, who nearly matched Williams' monstrousness. He scored 18 of his 24 points in the second half, was 12-of-19 from the field, grabbed nine rebounds, dished four assists, blocked six shots and snagged three steals.
But he also got outfoxed in a head-to-head matchup with Williams near the basket late, getting called for traveling with three seconds left.
The Huskies immediately got the ball back, however, when the ensuing inbounds pass from Solomon Hill to Lamont ''MoMo'' Jones bounced off Jones' leg. Hill said after the game that the turnover was a "miscommunication." The Wildcats were out of timeouts, Miller said, and should have tossed the ball long, instead of doing a quick, short feed.
But that merely set up Williams for his heroics.
"Derrick Williams is just an incredible player," Miller said. "He's such a gamer. He's so clutch."
Miller then gently suggested that the sophomore, who likely will enter the NBA draft this summer, should be ranked among the Wildcats all-time greats.
Of course, many of those greats led the Wildcats to one -- or more -- of their four Final Fours.
While clearly the star, Williams doesn't do it alone. Hill, for one, made the Cats’ final basket when he put back an offensive rebound off a blocked shot. In fact, the difference in the game was rebounding, particularly on the offensive glass. In a battle of the Pac-10's top two rebounding teams, Arizona dominated, owning a 35-22 edge, including a 16-6 advantage on the offensive glass.
The rebounding battle also was where both teams seemed to often find offense from each other. The Huskies pushed the Wildcats around in an 85-68 win in Seattle on Jan. 20. The Wildcats, who clearly didn't enjoy the visit to the Emerald City, haven't lost since.
Winning is not new to Arizona. "Everyone in here has seen this before," Miller noted.
Yet these Wildcats might just be a bit scrappier than previous celebrated vintages. They aren't there yet. But they've got a monster and a supporting cast that appears hungry to get there.