Williams rises up to save Arizona
TULSA, Okla. -- Opportunity came bouncing Wesley Witherspoon's way, and everyone could see overtime awaited, and maybe an upset. But then Derrick Williams arrived, too -- and swatted it all away.
"Nobody saw him," said Memphis guard Will Barton of Williams' last-second game-clincher. "He just kind of came out of nowhere and blocked the shot."
After the 77-75 win, the Wildcats are headed to the second round, where they'll face No. 4 Texas. But before we look ahead -- where trouble might await -- take a moment to appreciate the final sequence, which was a flashback, at least for serious college basketball fans, to four weeks ago, when Williams pulled off a virtually identical play, blocking Darnell Gant's short jump shot as time was running out to preserve a one-point win over Pac-10 rival Washington.
This one, of course, was more important. And for many it will serve as an introduction to an overlooked star.
This is going to sound kind of crazy, but if Barton thought Williams came out of nowhere, many casual college hoops fans probably were thinking the same thing. The 6-8 sophomore forward is the Pac-10's player of the year, and he'll make several All-America teams, but he hasn't gotten the attention he deserved. Maybe it's because the Pac-10 is down (despite Arizona coach Sean Miller's passionate pleas to the contrary during postgame interviews), and people suspect regular-season champion Arizona isn't all that good (which might be correct; we'll learn more Sunday).
But how good is Williams? Ask Josh Pastner. The young Memphis coach says he voted for Williams as national player of the year. That's a bit much -- Williams isn't Jimmer -- but his impact on Arizona has been similar, which is why the Tigers made him the focus of their defensive game plan. When was the last time you saw the box-and-one and triangle-and-two defenses employed against a post player?
"I've never seen a box-and-one on a big man before," said Williams -- and understand, he's seen just about every other defensive strategy this season.
It almost worked, too. Williams scored 22 points and pulled down 10 rebounds. But for long stretches, he was silent. Miller said the Tigers' gimmick defenses opened up shots for Williams' teammates. The problem is, those teammates didn't hit many of them. If Arizona is going to go farther, the Wildcats have to get some consistent scoring from elsewhere or work harder at feeding Williams.
Preferably the latter. Against Memphis, he went more than 11 minutes in the second half without scoring, and it was mostly because he rarely touched the ball. Much of that was Memphis' defensive focus. Some of it was Arizona taking the open shots that resulted from the Tigers' overplay on Williams.
But it was almost this simple: When Williams got the ball, he scored. It was an efficient performance -- 6-for-11 from the field, 9-for-9 from the free-throw line -- and that's routine; Williams he averages 19.1 points and 8.1 rebounds, and he hits 61.5 percent of his shots.
"He did what he was supposed to do," Miller said, "and at the end of the day he was our team's best offensive player."
He's always Arizona's best offensive player, and we can look forward to a fun matchup Sunday with Texas' freshman forward Tristan Thompson. But against the deep, talented Longhorns, the Wildcats cannot afford to forget about Williams like they seemed to at times against No. 12 seed Memphis. They'll need to get him the ball as often as possible.
Fortunately, Williams is also the Wildcats' best clutch player. With the inside stuffed full of Tigers, he went outside. With 3:51 left, his 3-pointer gave the Wildcats the lead and the momentum.
"He amazes me," Miller said.
But no one who's been watching Williams this season should have been surprised. He's hitting 60.3 percent from beyond the arc. Former Arizona great Steve Kerr, who did TV commentary on the game, owns the school record of 57.3 percent in 1987-88 (with many more attempts).
"If we got into the gym and those two guys shot it out, I'd put all my money on Steve Kerr," Miller said. "But in the game ... in the moment, (Williams) is such a gamer. It's as if he's playing in his back yard. He has a way of making big plays and finishing the other team off."
It wasn't quite over after that show. But leading by three points with 7.4 seconds left, Miller told the Wildcats to foul rather than give up a 3-pointer. With five seconds left, Memphis freshman Joe Jackson hit the first free throw and intentionally missed the second. Then he tipped the loose ball to Witherspoon, who was all alone near the basket.
"I thought it was a guaranteed bucket," Barton said.
But Williams rose up to block it. Witherspoon fell to the ground.
"It was a controversial call," Witherspoon said. "You can say I was fouled, you can say I wasn't."
Veteran referee Jim Burr decided he wasn't, and replays seemed to validate him. Williams was banking that, in the final seconds, no-call would be the default decision.
"Late in the game. most refs don't call that," Williams said. "That's why I went up so hard to try to block it and save the game."
The Wildcats are fortunate he came out of nowhere to do it. Their next task is to make sure he doesn't go back there in the next round.