Duke seniors Nolan Smith, Casey Peters and Kyle Singler look on as their final game plays out in Anaheim.
Duke seniors Nolan Smith, Casey Peters and Kyle Singler look on as their final game plays out in Anaheim.

ANAHEIM, Calif. — The tide had turned. The lower-seeded but surging Wildcats, who had been outplayed in the first half and only had a fighting chance thanks to the masterful performance of sophomore Derrick Williams, were on the cusp of putting away the defending national champion and one-seeded Blue Devils.

With the ball at the top of the arc, Williams gathered himself to fire another 3-pointer, having already buried a season-high five on the night. But after faking a helpless Miles Plumlee into a block attempt, Williams steamrolled into the vacant lane as the Duke defense stood and watched. Williams unleashed a ferocious tomahawk dunk with his head far above the rim.

It seemed to signal not only the arrival of a superstar and the revival of a once-storied program, but also marked the heartbreaking end to Duke’s drive for a fifth national championship.

Williams’ career-high 32 points propelled Arizona to the Elite Eight, as the Wildcats trounced the Blue Devils 93-77 Thursday night at the Honda Center. The collegiate careers of Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith came to an end with the loss.

“It’s happened to me a couple of times before,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “All of a sudden, you just can’t stop them. They were phenomenal in the second half, we just couldn’t stop them.”

Williams, who scored 25 points in the first half, had a relatively paltry seven in the second, but his teammates were there to pick up the slack. The Wildcats clawed back to a six-point deficit through the defensive efforts of Solomon Hill and Kyle Fogg, who were non-factors in the first half.

The emergence of additional scoring threats outside of Williams stretched the Blue Devils’ defense and allowed for open shots across the floor. With Duke forced to double team Williams in the post, Arizona’s spot shooters made the Blue Devils pay. Senior Jamelle Horne and sophomore Lamont Jones, who scored just two points combined in the first half, finished the night with 23.

Enabled by the mismatches Williams created, Arizona ripped off a 19-2 run over a four-minute stretch that began with just over 16 minutes remaining in the second half, burying the Blue Devils and leaving Krzyzewski—and his players—shaking their heads.

“I don’t think it’s something our players did poorly…. [We got] overwhelmed there for a little bit and they knocked us back and got that double-digit lead,” Krzyzewski said.

Trailing for the majority of the second half, a rattled Duke team simply lost its composure against the pressure of a ravenous Wildcats’ defense, and fumbled any chance it had at making a late run.

With the ball in the hands of Ryan Kelly at the top of the arc, reserve guard Brendon Lavender capped off the Arizona run by picking off a sloppy exchange between Kelly and Nolan Smith, and speeding down the floor for an easy dunk.

The miscommunication symbolized Duke’s entire half, in which the Blue Devils’ costly mistakes prevented them from sustaining an offensive run. Against a team ranked second-to-last in the Pac-10 in field goal percentage allowed, Duke was bullied into shooting just 37.5 percent from the field.

Even more costly to the Blue Devils were the transition points the Wildcats manufactured on the defensive end. Seven second-half turnovers allowed for 14 Arizona points, and Duke couldn’t make up for lost ground offensively in crunch time.

Smith, the team’s leading scorer and usual go-to option, shot just 3-for-14 from the floor and looked out of rhythm all night. Although the duo of Kyle Singler and Kyrie Irving combined for 46 points, the formerly staunch Duke defense allowed the Wildcats to shoot an astronomical 58.3 percent from the field in the final period, negating any gains the pair made.

“We just gave them too many easy buckets in the second half… off of rebounds and turnovers,” Mason Plumlee said. “They were just getting uncontested shots.”

With the final score line spiraling out of control, Smith and Singler exited the game for the final time at the 2:01 mark, sheepishly walking over to the bench to embrace their coaches and teammates. For two of the most prolific players in program history, the drubbing at the hands of the Wildcats was a cold reminder of the reality of the NCAA Tournament.

“The tournament is cruel. It’s an abrupt end for everybody when you don’t win,” Krzyzewski said.

Now, a national championship banner will go up in a different stadium in 2011. And for two players who had the chance to place their names among the Hills and Laettners in Duke history, Smith and Singler are instead left to wonder what could have been.


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