ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Derrick Williams had sensed the disrespect. In his mind, not many thought Arizona could actually upset defending national champion Duke.
But with Williams, the Wildcats have a game-changer unlike any other. By the time he got done scoring 32 points and grabbing 13 rebounds in a 93-77 win against Duke, Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski was left heaping praise on the star sophomore and telling the 6-foot-8 forward that he was indeed special.
“He’s as good as anybody we’ve played, or I should say better than anybody we’ve played,” said Krzyzewski, who finished the season with 900 career Division I wins. “Even when he’s not scoring, he spreads you out. There is a physicality to his game. Clean, beautiful -- he’s a beautiful player.”
Williams’ 32 points tied a school record for most points in an NCAA tournament game, and it was the first time since 1990 that any player has scored that many in a win over the defending champs. It was a dominating performance that carried the Wildcats into a matchup with Connecticut in the Elite Eight, a place the Cats haven't been in six years.
For all the doubters who thought a young Arizona team under second-year coach Sean Miller was not yet ready to experience glory days, Williams provided the response on the court and with words of his own.
“It just proves a lot of people wrong right there,” Williams said. “I think a lot of people -- media, fans, friends -- said that we couldn’t do it, and this proved them all wrong. I think that next time that they pick somebody else to beat us, they’ll think differently.”
Williams, whose season has been defined by last-minute heroics -- including each of UA's first two tourney games -- this time made his deepest impact in the first half, when he scored 25 points on 8-of-11 shooting. He made five 3-pointers, including one with a second left on the clock to give the Wildcats a manageable six-point halftime deficit.
For all its NCAA tournament experience, Duke ended up getting dominated in a 55-point second half for Arizona, which ended up scoring more points than any Blue Devil tourney opponent in 14 years. The Wildcats went on a 19-2 run during which Lamont Jones tied the score at 53 with a jump shot and Jamelle Horne hit a 3-pointer to give Zona the lead. Horne, Williams and Brendon Lavender later soared for dunks, and the Wildcats got plenty of second-chance opportunities as well.
“In the second half, I just think they were the aggressor,” said Duke guard Kyrie Irving, who scored 28 points in his third game since returning from a toe injury. “They were throwing a lot more punches than us. Tonight they were the better team.”
While Irving said after the game that he remains undecided about his future at Duke, it was the end of the line for seniors Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler. Krzyzewski had them both check out for the last time with 2:01 left and the Blue Devils trailing by 17, drawing them close and saying a few words.
The abrupt realization that his career was over caused Smith to bury his head in a towel and choke back tears on the bench. He scored eight points, going only 3-for-14 from the field while committing six of the team’s 11 turnovers. “Everybody on their team stepped up,” said a stunned Smith.
Singler had 18 points and eight rebounds, but the Wildcats shot 54 percent and controlled the glass by a 40-27 margin (25-9 in the second half). With the Blue Devils unable to stop Williams from further improving his NBA draft stock, they never made a serious run to get back into the game.
“Seeing them on the sideline and the name on their jerseys, we were bracing for it,” Horne said.
But the expected Duke run simply never came.
Said Krzyzewski: “They were phenomenal in the second half. We couldn’t stop ‘em. We just couldn’t stop ‘em.”
Duke could never find its rhythm, with Williams’ talent unmatched and his motivation for beating Duke made clear after the game. He knew all about the last meeting between the two schools in the 2001 national championship game that Duke won.
“One fan told me, ‘My shirt is getting small from the 1997 championship. I need another one,’” Williams said. “That flipped the switch. I want to give everyone what they want.”
In front of family and friends near his hometown and plenty of Arizona fans who made the short trip, Williams will now have a chance to help the Wildcats reach the Final Four for the first time since that '01 title game. A one-man wrecking crew at times, he’s destroying the notion that these Cats can’t start a new chapter in the program’s storied history.
“If we win this game on Saturday," Williams said, "we’re going to be known as one of the best Arizona teams to play."