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BILL PLASCHKE

The reason Wildcats got in is reason they're out

Derrick Williams doesn't get inside game going and Arizona falls to UConn, 65-63, in West Regional final.

March 26, 2011|Bill Plaschke
  • Wildcats forward Derrick Williams lets out a yell after dunking against Connecticut in the second half of the NCAA West Regional final at Honda Center in Anaheim on Saturday.
Wildcats forward Derrick Williams lets out a yell after dunking against… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)

Sometimes the moment doesn't shine. Sometimes the moment suffocates.

Sometimes even the broadest of young shoulders sag under the weight of this boulder of a sporting event, the NCAA basketball tournament crumbling as many stars as it creates.

In the third weekend of March, sometimes even Goliath trembles, especially when he's 19 years old, lists video games as a hobby, and believes nothing can survive his swagger.

Late Saturday afternoon, Arizona's Derrick Williams was dancing in the middle of a dream, raising his arms again and again, directing the roar of a Honda Center dressed in red.

UConn defeats Arizona, 65-63, to win West Regional

By early Saturday evening, he could barely move his feet or lift his head, which he draped in a towel as he shuffled in red-eyed silence into questions he could not answer.

The 6-foot-8 power drill of a forward had led Arizona to a three-point lead over favored Connecticut with 6:36 left in the West Regional final. Then, just as quickly and powerfully, he dragged them down to an eventual 65-63 defeat that was startling in its transformation.

Williams once dunked over two guys, but finished with a crazy shot from Fullerton. He once owned this game with his power, then gave it away with his freelancing.

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In a span of about two hours, Williams was the biggest man in the room, then the smallest, then, with eyes red and stare blank, the sorriest.

"Everybody wants to take some plays that they did wrong back," said the sophomore afterward, speaking in hushed tones that belied his earlier monster presence. "And especially me."

Make no mistake, Williams is the reason Arizona was here, the reason the forgotten Wildcats were within two hours of reaching Final Four. The La Mirada prep star was one of the best five players in this tournament, the probable top pick in this summer's NBA draft, and the fact he defected from a commitment to USC will haunt the Trojans for years.

But, as this tournament reminds us again and again, these kids are still just kids. And when Arizona overcame Williams' early foul trouble and took a 55-52 lead on two of his free throws, their star showed his age.

Early in one ensuing possession, he threw up a wild three-point attempt that clanked out. On the next possession, he did the same thing with the same result. On the following possession, he lost the ball to UConn's Jeremy Lamb.

Meanwhile, UConn was doing everything that Arizona did not — making smart passes, setting strong picks, taking good shots, their star Kemba Walker making everyone better around him.

By the time a rattled Arizona Coach Sean Miller called timeout, the three-point lead had become a seven-point deficit.

"One thing that I really learned today coaching against UConn for the first time is you can't underestimate their poise," said Miller.

That's exactly what Arizona was missing, because that's what Williams was missing, his problems continuing moments later when he found himself guarding Walker with 1:15 remaining and the Wildcats trailing by three.

Walker stepped back. Williams did not go with him. Walker drained an open shot to give UConn the clinching score.

"We let it get away," Williams said.

Well, they still had a chance, but on the Wildcats' final possession after a timeout, Williams threw up yet another nutty three-point try with seven seconds remaining, then teammate Jamelle Horne missed an open three-pointer at the buzzer.

If you were wondering why Williams did not take the ball inside, you weren't the only one.

Said UConn Coach Jim Calhoun about the final stretch: "We were happy when Derrick Williams went outside."

Said Miller of the final shot: "I don't know if it was a great one, but for him with the ball in his hands from three in that situation is something we all can live with."

They live with it, because without Williams, their chances have no life. But for the thousands of frustrated Arizona fans who filled Honda Center, it was a difficult way to say good-bye, watching their strongman leave the season and their school splattered with the muck of failed finesse.

"If you're going to leave me open, I'm going to shoot it," said Williams, who made five of six three-pointers against Duke in the regional semifinals, but only one of six from long distance Saturday. "Most of the time I'm going to make it."

Even in the very end, Derrick Williams believed that, and you have to love some of that confidence and youth, right up until they led to his undoing.

"Yeah, I wish I had a couple of those plays back," he said later, his body slumped in front of his locker, a moment of growth, but nothing shining about it.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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