Sweet 16 Recap West Regional - (5) Arizona 93, (1) Duke 77

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Before they began their journey through the 2011 NCAA Tournament, the Arizona Wildcats hadn’t beaten a non-conference opponent of note. A team rebuilding from a difficult 2010 season scheduled light and registered its best non-Pac-10 win against North Carolina State.

It’s now safe to say that the Wildcats have upgraded the quality of their wins over Atlantic Coast Conference foes. In one night, the West Regional and much of the NCAA Tournament was turned upside-down thanks to a shocker that very few people predicted.

Yes, Arizona upset the top-seeded Duke Blue Devils in the second game of the West Regional semifinal doubleheader on Thursday night. The fact that the Wildcats merely beat Duke at the Honda Center was a mind-blowing development in its own right. The fact that the Pac-10 champions destroyed the defending national champions in Anaheim, California, was that much more difficult to comprehend.

In one night, a roster that did not play in the 2010 NCAA Tournament defeated a team loaded with seasoned March Madness veterans. An Arizona club that was lucky to survive the first two rounds of this year’s tournament against Memphis and Texas had transformed itself into a juggernaut that laid waste to the greatest college basketball coach of this generation. Indeed, after a pair of Houdinis last weekend in Tulsa, Arizona morphed into an unstoppable force that soundly thrashed Duke and head coach Mike Krzyzewski.

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The point is worth underscoring: Arizona, mentally shaky and unaccustomed to the tournament after a necessary transition period brought about by former coach Lute Olson’s health problems, was just beginning to reacquaint itself with big-time ball this March. Arizona had made 25 straight NCAA Tournaments from 1985 through 2009, so after the 2010 season shattered a proud program’s sense of expectations, the Cats had to start over again. They worked their way up the Pac-10 ladder and into the NCAAs this season, but they no longer owned the intimidation factor past Arizona teams naturally carried onto the court. Accordingly, the U of A – back in the Big Dance this year after missing the event in 2010 – was just trying to make a respectable showing. It wobbled on the opening weekend of this tournament, needing end-of-game heroics from superstar Derrick Williams to survive its first two rounds of competition. A lot of people thought that Texas – Arizona’s victim in the second round – had a great chance to upend Duke in the Sweet 16. How ironic it was, then, that Arizona managed to do the job itself with an authoritativeness that nobody expected.

The story of this game was two-pronged: In the first half, Williams carried his Wildcat teammates upon his back. In the second half, the supporting cast carried the U of A to the finish line. With the Blue Devils firing on all cylinders in the first half, Williams was a one-man show stopper for Arizona. The All-American poured in 25 of his career-high 32 points in the first stanza as the Wildcats remained competitive, trailing by just six points at the break, 44-38. Once the second began, it was Williams’s teammates who took over. Jamelle Horne – one of the few Wildcats with prior tournament experience from 2008 and 2009 – grabbed rebounds at both ends of the floor while hitting clutch perimeter shots and dunking over timid Duke defenders. The senior forward’s energy inspired his teammates and lit up the building, as the Wildcats went on an astounding 19-2 run midway through the half. The jawdropping display of all-court athleticism from an aggressive and impassioned Arizona roster enabled the fifth seed to take full control of the contest while Duke crumbled. The Blue Devils simply stopped playing defense and committed a torrent of turnovers on plainly panicky possessions before a roused audience that was not only cheering for a team from the Western United States, but for a school that has a substantial alumni base in Southern California.

The surge of points from the fifth-seeded underdog sent the red-shrouded Arizona throng into a frenzy; nobody in the building could believe what was happening, but that unmistakable shock did not cause Wildcat fans to withhold their voices. A semi-home game propelled Arizona toward the finish line, all while a Duke team saddled by foul trouble (star Kyle Singler picked up his fourth foul at the midway point of the second half) wilted. The defending champions never mounted a convincing rally; improbably yet undeniably, this contest was never close down the stretch. Arizona had built a commanding 19-point lead and preserved almost all of it in the final minutes of regulation, which carried a lot of jubilation for the Wildcats but incredibly little drama.

Duke’s season came to an abrupt halt, with the Devils finishing at 32-5. The fifth-seeded Wildcats will face third-seeded Connecticut in the Elite Eight on Saturday for the chance to go to the Final Four.

By Matt Zemek
DFN Sports Senior Staff Writer




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