ANAHEIM, Calif. — The biggest caveat with Arizona during a resurgent season was that the Wildcats were a one-man team.
Thursday night against Duke, Derrick Williams, a 6-foot-8 forward with an array of talents, reinforced the notion that he is one of the nation’s best players by scoring a career-high 32 points, including 25 in a singular first-half effort. The shocker was that the sophomore's complementary pieces showed in the second half that they are also up to the task.
Trailing by six points at halftime, fifth-seeded Arizona turned the West Region semifinal into a rout, overwhelming the top-seeded Blue Devils in a 93-77 victory before a raucous crowd at Honda Center. Arizona (30-7) advanced to play third-seeded Connecticut (29-9) in Saturday's region final.
“I really felt like it was two different games,” Arizona Coach Sean Miller said. “The biggest turnaround in the second half: We were a total team.”
Williams scored 25 of Arizona’s 38 points in the first half. In the second half, Arizona shot 58.3 percent from the field. And the Wildcats outrebounded Duke, 25-9, after halftime, collecting 11 of their 16 offensive rebounds in the second half.
During a span of four minutes early in the second half, Arizona turned a four-point deficit into an 11-point advantage.
“We had no stop for them,” Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “You kind of get overwhelmed a little bit. They didn’t miss many shots there for a while.”
During last season's national title run, the Blue Devils played in a road environment against Baylor in a region final in Houston and against Butler in the national title game in Indianapolis. On Thursday, Duke wouldn't have faced a more hostile crowd if the game were played in Tucson.
Throughout the second half, Duke looked uncharacteristically rattled. Nolan Smith, the ACC's player of the year, made just 3 of 14 field goal attempts and finished with six turnovers in his final college game.
This was expected to be a new and improved Duke team in the NCAA tournament, with freshman phenom Kyrie Irving back on the court after missing 26 games with a toe injury. But while Irving (28 points) shined during what may be his final appearance in college, the Blue Devils struggled to edge Michigan in the second round and authored a poor second-half performance in the Sweet 16 against Arizona.
As a No. 1 seed, Duke has lost to a No. 5 seed in the Sweet 16 four times since 1985: Besides Thursday's loss to Arizona, the Blue Devils fell to Michigan State in 2005, to Indiana in 2002 and to Florida in 2000.
The punctuation mark Thursday came with eight minutes to play: Williams bounced into the lane and elevated for a resounding right-handed dunk that roused the pro-Arizona crowd into a frenzy.
“Williams, he is better than anyone we’ve played this season,” Krzyzewski said.
Thursday’s victory underscored the rebuilding effort Coach Sean Miller has done in less than two full calendar years on the job in Tucson. After seeing Arizona's 25-year run in the NCAA tournament end last season, Miller led the Wildcats to a surprising Pacific-10 regular season title, and now an appearance in the Elite Eight. While Miller lingered on the court Thursday after the game, an Arizona fan screamed, “Coach, this rebuilding stuff is fun!” Miller smiled as he removed his tie.
“The name Arizona has always been a big part of this tournament,” Krzyzewski said. “Now they are an Elite Eight team with a chance to go to the Final Four. They are in good hands.”
Williams, who attended nearby La Mirada High as an under-the-radar prep player, single-handedly kept Arizona in the game with a first-half performance that included making 5 of 6 shots from three-point range.
In Arizona’s two previous tournament wins, Williams made a game-sealing block to beat Memphis in the first round and converted a game-winning three-point play to beat Texas in the second round. If the Wildcats were going to advance Thursday, it looked like Williams would have to carry them again. But everything changed in the second half.
Arizona was the aggressor throughout the second half. Forward Solomon Hill scored 10 of his 13 points in the second half, and guard Lamont Jones scored 14 of his 16 points after halftime. In all, nine of the 10 Wildcats who played scored at least two points in the game.
The question of whether the Wildcats could muster enough offense from any player not named Derrick Williams was legitimate all season.
They had an emphatic answer on Thursday.