ANAHEIM, Calif. — Arizona led 18-10 in the first half, was on the attack, had a pro-Wildcat crowd at the Honda Center ready to get louder.
And then UA sophomore Derrick Williams picked up his second foul about 20 feet from the basket. There was 10:36 left before halftime.
Williams went to the bench … and UConn went on a 9-0 run.
Williams re-entered the game with 6:19 to go in the first half. Arizona led 22-20. He picked up his third foul 27 seconds later.
“It changed the game. It really did,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said of Williams’ foul trouble in the first half.
The Huskies used the star forward’s extended absence to take a 32-25 lead, and they held on to win 65-63 Saturday in the West regional final when Jamelle Horne’s 3-point attempt in the final seconds hit the front iron and bounced off, no good.
Williams fessed up to the first foul — “I jumped on Kemba (Walker). He got me in the air,” he said — but tried his best to be diplomatic about foul No. 2 and foul No. 3.
“The second and third, I’m not sure,” he said.
“But they’re the refs. You can’t argue with them. They make the calls. Everybody’s human. When they get one wrong, they get one wrong.
“The three fouls that I got, I think they really affected our team a little bit. But like I said at the beginning of the season, it’s not a one-man team. Everybody stepped up when I was out.”
Well, not in the first half.
Without Williams, Arizona had trouble running its offense, getting good shots. And if the Wildcats were open, the shots didn’t go down.
Arizona shot a miserable 29.7 percent in the first half (11 of 37), including 1 of 11 from 3-point range.
With Williams for nearly the entire second half, Arizona made 54.2 percent of its attempts (13 of 24).
“The first half against UConn, our offense wasn’t very good,” Miller said.
“If you look at the numbers in the second half on offense, when Derrick was part of the game the whole half, that was pretty much how we’ve been playing. In the first half, we certainly didn’t execute.
“And, by the way, UConn is a really good defensive team. They really are. When you play them in person, you really respect their size at the basket a lot more.”
Miller could be questioned for putting Williams into the game in the first half with two fouls, but that is consistent with how he coached this season.
“You always worry about putting a guy in with two, but, in this situation, it’s so important to play to win and to give our team the best chance,” Miller said. “And Derrick has played in the first half with two.”
Williams finished with 20 points on 5-of-13 shooting. He was 9 of 12 from the free throw line. Williams, however, was only 1 of 6 from 3-point range after going 5 of 6 against Duke on Thursday.
In any case, having Williams play a mere seven minutes in the first half dug a significant hole for the Cats.
“You’re talking about our key guy,” said sophomore forward Solomon Hill. “Basically, our offense. Him being out really messed us up. It took us a while to get going.”