Twenty basketball minutes later, Arizona point guard MoMo Jones stood at midcourt and slammed the ball down to cap the best half any team has played in this tournament. As the orange Wilson bounced almost to the Honda Center scoreboard that read Arizona 93, Duke 77, Jones balled his fists, shut his eyes and screamed.
"THEY COUNTED US OUT!"
We did. Admit it. I had two chances to predict an Arizona win in this round in print, and both times I assumed the Duke juggernaut would roll over the Wildcats on its path to Houston. The Blue Devils had plenty of pieces left from last year's national title team and one freshman sensation who made the club even more dangerous. The Blue Devils were tournament-tested. The Blue Devils played ferociously on both ends of the floor. In spite of 25 points from Williams, the Blue Devils had a six-point lead at the half.
And then, the Blue Devils got their butts kicked.
"We earned a lot of respect tonight," Williams said. Sometimes, a team has to manufacture disrespect. Not Arizona. The Wildcats could find disrespect Thursday on every sports channel, on every sportstalk station and on every sports Web site. "The whole world counted us out," Jones said. "Critics. Analysts. People on the streets. People in Vegas betting on the games."
They were the biggest underdog of the night, and for one half all but one Wildcat played like it. That Wildcat was Williams, who came to Anaheim as the least known of Thursday's star-studded lineup that included Connecticut's Kemba Walker, Duke's Nolan Smith and BYU's Jimmer Fredette, who was playing against Florida in New Orleans. But after America watched the 6-foot-8, 241-pound Williams dribble, dunk and stroke five of six first-half three-point attempts, little doubt remained as to why NBA scouts consider Williams a top-five talent and a possible No. 1 draft pick.
Duke has its own potential No. 1 draft pick, and freshman guard Kyrie Irving showed why early. Coming off the bench, Irving scored 14 first-half points on five of six shooting. Versatile wing Kyle Singler added another 14 and six rebounds in the half, and the Blue Devils built a respectable lead in spite of Williams' brilliance. When the teams went to the locker room, Duke led Arizona in every major statistical category: rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, and most importantly, points. All that remained in the second was for Williams to cool and for the Blue Devils to pull away.
As the Wildcats walked to their locker room at halftime, coach Sean Miller crawled in the ear of senior forward Jamelle Horne, whose Arizona career has been an odyssey. He signed to play for legendary Lute Olson and wound up playing as a freshman for Kevin O'Neill while Olson took a leave of absence. Olson returned before Horne's sophomore season, but he retired before the Wildcats played a game. That left the team in the hands of interim coach Russ Pennell and assistant Mike Dunlap, who led Arizona to the Sweet 16 in 2009 with the knowledge they'd be fired after the Wildcats were eliminated from the tourney. Last year, Horne and his teammates struggled early in former Xavier coach Miller's first year in Tucson, and Arizona's 25-year NCAA tournament streak was snapped. But the Wildcats had come roaring back after a one-year absence, and Miller sensed they weren't quite ready to leave the dance. This exchange followed.
Miller: "Are you going to play? Or are you not going to play?"
Horne: "Yes, coach. I will."
Miller: "Show me."
Miller delivered similar challenges to other Arizona players. With each one, he lit a piece of kindling. Five minutes into the half, a bonfire raged. Duke's Smith -- held to eight points by Arizona's Kyle Fogg -- hit a jumper 10 seconds into the half to stretch Duke's lead to eight. Less than five minutes later, Jones hit a jumper to tie the score, grabbed a defensive rebound and then hit two free throws to give Arizona a lead it never would relinquish. Three minutes after that, Brendon Lavender's dunk put Arizona up 11.
Duke's deficit had only increased by one -- it reached 12 on a tomahawk dunk by Williams -- when Arizona's Jordin Mayes missed a three-pointer from the wing. Horne grabbed the rebound, dribbled once and threw down a vicious, emasculating dunk over Singler that effectively ended the game with 7:03 to play. "That," Horne said, "was nasty."
Horne said the Wildcats spent the final few minutes imagining they still trailed by six. That way, they wouldn't allow the defending champs a chance to claw back. But Duke was spent. Arizona's 10-deep lineup had worn out the Blue Devils, and it seemed the Wildcats still attacked in waves. "Their guys kept playing. They kept coming at us," Horne said. "But it's tough to come back after blow after blow. We kept hitting big shots."
The stat sheet, slightly in Duke's favor in the first half, was a bloody mess in the second. Arizona had four more steals, three fewer turnovers and had outrebounded the Blue Devils, 25-9. On the offensive glass, the Wildcats had won 11-2. On the scoreboard for that 20 minutes, Arizona had won by 22. "I don't think it's something our kids did poorly," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "But we had no stop for them, and you kind of get overwhelmed there for a little bit." Duke forward Mason Plumlee was more succinct. Asked what went wrong defensively in the second half, he said "everything."
Arizona's Jones doesn't believe Duke even played that poorly. He said the Wildcats have had this kind of win lurking inside them for some time now. All they needed was an opportunity to show the world how far they've come.
"We came out tonight and we proved to the world that if we play like a team and hard that we can play with the best in the country," Jones said. "Duke is one of the best in the country. We. Beat. Them."