Duke assistant coach Nate James, above, speaks with a distraught Nolan Smith, left, while fellow senior Kyle Singler covers his face with a towel in the closing seconds of their 93-77 loss to Arizona in the West Regional semifinals in Anaheim, Calif. Below: Arizona's Derrick Williams throws a salute back to the bench after scoring a first-half basket. Photos by CHUCK LIDDY - firstname.lastname@example.org
updated 12:45 a.m.
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Duke’s hopes of posting back-to-back NCAA championships came to a crushing end Thursday night as an energetic and red-hot Arizona team ran out to a stunning, 93-77 upset of the top-seeded Blue Devils.
Derrick Williams scored 25 of his 32 points in the first half to help the No. 5-seeded Wildcats overcome an 11-point deficit. And Arizona shredded Duke’s defense with drives, 3-pointers and offensive rebounds in the second half to turn the game into a rout.
“They played a phenomenal game, especially in the second half,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, “and Wiliams, he’s just a superb player. He’s better than anybody we’ve played. He kept his team in there in the first half. I thought we played a little bit better than the score in the first half, but Williams scoring 25 kept them in.”
Duke senior guard Nolan Smith, the ACC player of the year, finished his career with one of his worst games of the season. Smith was held to eight points – 13 below his average – shot 3-for-14 from the field as the Blue Devils’ season ended in heartbreak with a 32-5 record.
Arizona (30-7) will meet No. 3 seed Connecticut (29-9), winners of eight in a row, in the West Regional final on Saturday.
The loss temporarily stopped Krzyzewski’s march toward the Division I-record career wins total held by Bob Knight, who coached Krzyzewski at the U.S. Military Academy. Knight has 902 career wins. Krzyzewski ends the season with 900.
If it wasn’t for sophomore forward Williams, though, Duke might have blown the Wildcats out of the gym in the first half.
“We were playing fine,” said Duke senior forward Kyle Singler. “Not great, but we felt like we were in it, yeah. But then when we came out in the second half, we just didn’t play very good basketball. It’s very disappointing, it hurts and they hurt us on the boards, too, especially in the second half.”
Williams scored 25 first-half points and shot 5-for-6 from 3-point range, including an incredible, off-balance 3-pointer one second before halftime over the outstretched arms of 6-foot-11 Duke forward Ryan Kelly. As the horn sounded, Williams turned, showing no emotion, to walk back to the locker room with Arizona trailing just 44-38 almost solely because of his outstanding play.
Duke led 31-20 after a driving basket by freshman guard Kyrie Irving with 6 minutes, 21 seconds left in the first half. At that point, just about everything seemed to be going the Blue Devils’ way.
Singler who had been 5-for-39 on 3-point attempts in his past 11 games, made two 3-pointers 40 seconds apart in the opening four minutes. He hadn’t made two 3-pointers in any game since a Feb. 13 win at Miami.
Irving, who was cautiously worked back into the lineup in Duke’s first two NCAA tournament games after missing 3 ½ months with a toe injury, appeared to be near full strength. He scored 14 of his 28 points in the first half, squeezing through tiny cracks in the defense to finish acrobatic drives at the rim.
One of the top prospects for the NBA draft, Irving was non-committal about his future following the game.
“I’m not definitely guaranteeing I’m coming back,” Irving said. “I’ll sit down with the coaching staff after the NCAA tournament and go from there.”
In the second half, the Wildcats were able to spread out Duke’s defense and drive to the basket almost at will. On the few occasions when the Blue Devils cut off the drive, Arizona players passed back out to wide-open shooters for 3-point shots.
And when those shots missed, the Duke players were so far out of position from chasing the quicker Arizona players that the Wildcats had easy runs to the rim. They rebounded. They dunked.
“They got those loose balls,” Smith said. “We were in position to get the rebounds, and we didn’t come up with them. They were definitely swarming, getting the rebounds and making plays.”
With 2:01 remaining and Duke trailing by 17 points, Krzyzewski sent substitutes into the game for Singler and Smith. Krzyzewski grabbed both of them around the waist for a moment, and then they went to the bench for the last time.
“I’m disappointed for them, especially for the two guys on my left,” Krzyzewski said, referring to Singler and Smith. “But look, the tournament is cruel. It’s an abrupt end for everyone when you don’t win. . . .These guys have been part of 125 wins over a four-year period, and it’s been an honor for me to coach them.”