TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — Derrick Williams felt the contact and himself going down at an awkward angle, so he flipped the ball toward the basket and braced for the fall. The ball somehow went in, he made the free throw and Arizona had sealed an NCAA tournament victory.
Two days before, the La Mirada native did it at the other end of the court. Coming off his man in the closing seconds, he reached out and swatted away a potential game-tying shot, preserving Arizona’s first victory in its return to the tournament.
A 6-foot-8 star when the game is on the line, Williams has become the Wildcats’ version of a closer and has taken them further into the tournament than anyone — including themselves — thought was possible.
“My teammates look for me at the end of the games to seal the victory,” Williams said. “That’s what I do.”
He sure does.
Williams had a knack for coming through in the clutch during the regular season, often by becoming more aggressive in the second half whenever he had a quiet first or the game was close.
The Pac-10’s player of the year had his — and his team’s signature moment — late in the season, when, with the Wildcats up one against Washington, he swooped across the lane and windmilled Darnell Gant’s shot into the student section in the closing seconds.
He added a little panache by tipping the ensuing inbound pass away to secure the victory, then found himself at the bottom of a pile of Wildcats at midcourt.
Plays such as that helped Arizona get back into the NCAA tournament after having its 25-year run end the previous season.
Williams then raised his big-play game once the Wildcats got into the tournament.
The first came in Arizona’s NCAA opener against Memphis.
The Wildcats appeared to be in control after Lamont Jones hit two free throws to put them up with 7.4 seconds left, but Memphis’ Wesley Weatherspoon grabbed an offensive rebound after teammate Joe Jackson made one free throw and intentionally missed the second.
Weatherspoon immediately went back up for the shot, but didn’t see Williams who sent his shot harmlessly thudding to the hardwood, along with Weatherspoon.
Inside the locker room, Arizona guard Kevin Parrom hummed the theme song to Superman in deference to his teammate’s caped crusading on the court.
“To us, he was Superman and he made a great play,” Parrom said.
But Williams wasn’t done saving the day.
In the NCAA’s third round on Sunday, Williams struggled all day against Texas’ long-armed front line, unable to find any gaps or use his power to get to the rim. Williams’ teammates picked up the slack to keep it close, giving their closer another shot to come through at the end.
Williams failed on one attempt on a shot in the lane — he thought he got fouled — but got a second chance when Texas was called for 5-second inbound violation along the baseline.
Arizona got the ball into Williams, who put his head down and charged toward the basket. He was bumped hard by former AAU teammate Jordan Hamilton and blindly flung the ball toward the basket as he tried to lighten the impact with the floor. The ball went in and Williams hit the free throw, sending Arizona to the next round.
“If we would have lost the game, I would have taken it really hard on myself knowing that I didn’t have a great game,” Williams said. “A lot of people on my team feed off of me.”
Williams has fed Arizona back into the NCAA’s round of 16 for a matchup against defending national champion Duke on Thursday in Anaheim, Calif. The team practice at Williams’ high school at La Mirada H.S., which is about 20 minutes away from the Honda Center.
Two of college basketball’s pre-eminent programs, Duke and Arizona met in the 2001 national title game, which the Blue Devils won by 10.
Duke kept its place among the elite, getting to the round of 16 seven times, including the 2004 Final Four and last year’s title after holding off upstart Butler.
Arizona went into a mini-tailspin caused by Lute Olson’s leave of absence then retirement, missing the NCAA tournament for the first time in 26 years last season.
This would seem to be a matchup of an established program against one that’s rebuilding, but the Wildcats aren’t looking at it that way. Not with the history they’ve had.
“It’s not as if this is a first-time thing at Arizona,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “Regardless of our current team’s status, the history of our program, we’re at a place that many Arizona teams have been at in the past, and that helps.”
So does having a closer such as Derrick Williams.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)