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Final collision decides Memphis-Arizona

3/19/2011



TULSA, Okla. -- There was a collision in the final seconds.

A collision of bodies.

A collision of fates.

A collision of reputations.

A collision they’ll be talking about for a long time in Memphis, and in Tucson.

Derrick Williams and the Arizona Wildcats won the collision. Wesley Witherspoon and the Memphis Tigers lost it. And official Jim Burr took another hit in the process.

The long arm of Williams saved Arizona again with another last-second blocked shot, flashing across the lane and rejecting what had appeared to be an open Witherspoon layup that could have tied the game. A month earlier, he swatted a game-winning shot into the stands just before the final horn against Washington.

If you’re going to attempt the last shot in a close game against the Wildcats, you are advised to take it from a different area code than the one occupied by Williams. Otherwise, he’s going to locate it and reject it.

“He’s Superman,” teammate Lamont “MoMo” Jones said after Arizona’s 77-75 victory.

“He just kind of came out of nowhere and blocked the shot,” Memphis guard Will Barton said.

But on his way in from out of nowhere, Williams went forcefully through Witherspoon’s upper arm. Replays show his body hit shoulder, tricep, elbow before his palm hit ball.

“You could say I got fouled,” Witherspoon said. “You could say I wasn’t.”

I’ll say he got fouled. But Williams is the All-American here, the kind of player who often gets the benefit of a call. He’s also a smart enough player to know that officials have a long history of swallowing their whistles in just such a situation.

“Honestly, with a second or two left on the clock, most refs don’t call that type of foul,” said Williams, who had 22 points and 10 rebounds. “Especially when you’re trying to make a hard play on the ball. Earlier in the game, they might have called it a foul just because he did fall on the ground. But late in the game, most refs don’t call that. That’s why I went up so hard to try to block it and save the game.”

The ref under the basket in this instance was none other than Burr, who has had an unfortunately newsworthy month. He, Tim Higgins and Earl Walton comprised the crew that butchered the Big East tournament game between Rutgers and St. John’s, resulting in the three dropping out of the rest of that tourney.

Then Burr showed up here, for this game. It’s fair to ask whether he should get the chance to call another game this season, but Burr’s status as one of the more accomplished officials in the game undoubtedly factored into him getting an NCAA tourney assignment. Memphis coach Josh Pastner said he had no problem with Burr calling the game, and neither did Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson.

And as fate would have it, Burr was the underneath official on a bang-bang play that decided the game. Unfortunately, that controversial coincidence partially obscures what was a terrific NCAA tournament game.

Memphis played with verve and daring and boldness, a young team that appeared too clueless to be uptight or intimidated. For a No. 12 seed that needed two free throws with seven seconds left to win the Conference USA tournament -- and even get to the Big Dance -- the Tigers acquitted themselves extremely well.

They just couldn’t quite overcome the clutchness of the Cats and the greatness of Williams.

Trailing by four points with less than seven minutes to play, Arizona did just about everything right in a 12-2 run to take the lead. The Wildcats took the lead at 68-65 on a 3-pointer by Williams, whose metamorphosis into a deadly shooter from that range has been remarkable. He’s made more than 60 percent of his 3s this season, after shooting 25 percent and making just four 3s last season.

“He amazes me with his 3-point shooting,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “I know [former Wildcat great] Steve Kerr did our game. Derrick’s threatening to break his record [for 3-point accuracy in a season]. It would be the greatest upset in NCAA history if Derrick breaks Steve Kerr’s record, and I say that only because Derrick is such a gamer.

“In the moment, he’s such a gamer. It’s as if he’s playing in his backyard. He has a way of making big plays and finishing the other team off, and he did it again here tonight.”

Williams got some help a little while later, when a Jones 3 bounced high off the rim and in. Jones is another guy who thrives at crunch time, a fearless New York guard who has made some big shots this season. But none bigger than this one.

“You’ve just got to let it go off the tips of your fingers,” Jones explained of the touch he put on the shot. “God will take care of the rest.”

But still the Tigers would not submit. With furious pressure defense, they gave themselves several possessions in the final minute, and with Arizona up three, Miller called for Jones to foul point guard Joe Jackson as he dashed upcourt with five seconds left.

That was a reversal of the strategy Miller employed in the Pac-10 title game against Washington, and the Huskies hit a 3 to tie and send the game into overtime. When he was coach at Xavier, Miller also had an NCAA tourney game in 2007 against Ohio State taken into OT by a last-second 3.

So this time Miller went with the foul. And it nearly backfired.

Jackson made the first, then called his own audible and missed the second on purpose. The freakish little athlete then soared up to tip the rebound free to Witherspoon, who appeared to have an unimpeded layup for the tie.

That’s when Williams appeared, and a memorable collision ensued.