Behind every triumph and heartbreak in the NCAA tournament, there’s a story. The Players’ Tribune presents Tales of Madness, a series of first-person accounts from iconic basketball players recalling their most memorable tournament experiences. In this installment, Solomon Hill remembers Arizona’s 2011 upset of Duke, the defending national champions, in a game that featured future No. 1 and No. 2 NBA draft picks Kyrie Irving and Derrick Williams.
Derrick Williams didn’t even like to shoot threes. But you know when you’re feeling it? When nothing can go wrong?
At the buzzer of the first half, Derrick just pulled up from beyond NBA range with a guy in his face. Of course it went in.
Nothing could go wrong for us.
It was the best first-half performance I’ve ever seen by a college basketball player. And I don’t say that lightly.
Derrick Williams just took over. Dunks, put-backs, and-ones, making the right passes, getting to the free throw line. He did it all. Coach K was just throwing different defenders at him — doubling, even tripling him.
Then Derrick capped off the half with that buzzer-beater. He finished the game with 32 points and 13 boards.
Before the game, we were all really nervous. Just a lot of nerves. We were thinking, This is the ultimate test. Seeding doesn’t matter anymore. It is what it is. Sooner or later, you have to play somebody really good.
We told ourselves, You have to want to play the best teams.
That year, it didn’t get better than Duke, the defending champions. They had a roster full of NBA talent: Nolan Smith, Kyrie Irving, Singler, the Plumlee brothers. They had the most respected coach in college basketball. They had the tradition, everything.
But we had a secret weapon: The game was in Anaheim. For us, that felt like home court advantage. We knew that if we got past those first two games against Memphis and Texas, we’d be going to LA. Our fanbase was in California and Arizona, so L.A. was our backyard.
It was a crazy atmosphere. Blue and red colors for Arizona everywhere. From the locker room, we could hear “Bear Down” chants. It just gave us the confidence we needed. Home court.
In the first half, I think Derrick Williams broke Duke’s spirits. In the second half, it was all about teamwork. At halftime, Coach K must have told them to shut Derrick down. The rest of us just stepped up. I don’t even think Derrick had very many points in the second half — he just started to kick it to the open guy.
My biggest focus was having to match up against Kyle Singler. I was nervous from the jump. You’re hearing the All-American talk and you’re hearing about how he was Player of Year in Oregon coming into college. Singler was a guy who was going to the NBA when he wanted to. I was a guy that was trying to get to the NBA any way I could. I’m not gonna lie, he came out on fire. He hit his first few shots, but I stayed with it. I played my role and put forth my best effort.
I finished with 13 points to Derrick’s 32 and we pulled off the upset, 93-77.
That whole year, we felt overlooked. We were a team that nobody really gave a chance. The year before, we all felt responsible for being the first Arizona team since before Lute Olson not to make the tourney. My freshman year, we didn’t even make the NIT.
The Duke win was our gift to the Arizona program. In any top program, you always talk about tradition. You talk about who played on that court before you — whose jerseys are hung up on the walls. You always talk about the great accomplishments. We wanted to get back to that.
Ask anyone on that team. It’s a game we will all always remember.
For more Tales of Madness, visit our Tales of Madness page.