ANAHEIM, Calif. - At one point Thursday night, Duke led 31-20, and the warranty seemed to expire on the revival of Arizona's basketball season. You could picture the end: The Wildcats would be left to vacuum up the pieces and be happy with 29 victories and an unexpected visit to the Sweet 16.
They would hit the highway with their dignity intact. Duke was just too good. Right?
"They were good, in fact, they were better than I thought they'd be," said UA senior Jamelle Horne. "But so were we. Way better."
The game ended with MoMo Jones dribbling in circles, running the clock down to 0:00, with the Blue Devils standing still, spectators at the Sweet 16, dumbfounded.
The Wildcats won with such authority, 93-77, that they were never threatened in the final 10 minutes.
"How much did we win by?" asked UA guard Brendon Lavender. Someone told him 16 points.
"It seemed like more than that," he said.
Given the circumstances and the opponent, it was, without much question, the best half in the history of Arizona basketball. The Wildcats outscored the defending national champions 55-33 in the second half, out-rebounding the taller Blue Devils 25-9, out-shooting them .583 to .375.
It seemed like an Arizona-Oregon State game.
"I can't name one person who didn't play great tonight," said UA guard Kyle Fogg. "We got them rattled. We rolled."
With two minutes to play, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski removed his starters and let the Wildcats run out the clock. Had he chosen otherwise, Arizona might've scored 100.
Unimaginably, Arizona has won 30 games. Lute Olson was able to do that just three times in 24 years.
Unbelievably, the Wildcats are 40 minutes shy of the Final Four.
"We took their best shot," said Horne. "And then we gave them ours."
This game will have an eternal shelf life in Tucson. No matter what happens in Saturday's Final Four qualifier against UConn, it has earned a place opposite the 1997 shocker over No. 1 Kansas in the Sweet 16, a game that enabled the Wildcats to win the national title.
The line that divides the past, present and future of UA hoops was forever blurred at Honda Center. If you beat a 32-win Duke team in the Sweet 16, you belong with the best.
"I can't explain (the second half)," Krzyzewski said. "That's what happens in sports; sometimes one team gets more aggressive than the other. I do think they saw shots going in and we didn't see shots going in.
"You kind of get overwhelmed there for a little bit, and they knocked us back and got that double-digit lead."
Imagine that: Coach K talking about being overwhelmed by an Arizona team that deploys but one senior, Horne - an Arizona team that was basically thrown together by scratch in the summer of 2009.
Duke was a team built for the long haul. Senior guards Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith have combined to play 292 games in their Blue Devils careers. Singler has scored 2,392 points, which is more than anyone in Arizona history except Sean Elliott.
But on Thursday night, the Wildcats played like seniors when anything less wouldn't do.
If UA coach Sean Miller feared the Blue Devils, he did not show it. For 72 hours, he stressed that the greatest difficulty would be mental, not physical. His team reflected his toughness.
"He kept stressing that Duke is a nasty team, and that we had to match their nastiness," said Horne. "He said if we could do that, we could win the game. So that's the word for the day, the week and the month: nasty. We were nasty enough to beat Duke."
Derrick Williams was the Big Nasty, with a career-high 32 points, 25 in the first half, on the biggest stage of his career. Solomon Hill referred to it as "a mismatch."
Fogg said: "He picked up 15 guys on his back and kept us in the game. I think he got to them a little bit. I think he intimidated them."
But it wasn't Williams that took over the game as much as it was Jones, who scored 14 points in the second half, and Hill, who scored 10. Incredibly, Williams scored just seven points in the second half and the Wildcats pulled away.
It wasn't perfection, but it was close.
Krzyzewski's instinct was that Arizona gained considerable self-worth and confidence by beating Memphis and Texas in two elimination games last week. He has coached in this wonderful madness for so long that he recognizes these things, these warning signs.
"In a one-shot game, it's happened to me before," he said. "Not that many times - where all the sudden you just can't stop somebody. They were phenomenal in the second half. We couldn't stop 'em. We just couldn't stop 'em."
Miller wisely kept Williams by his side after the game. They lingered on the court, talking to network TV people. They walked into the locker room together, embracing their teammates and the coaches. And they walked to an interview area together.
Wisely, the coach would not let his star out of his sight.
"If we win this game Saturday," said Williams, "we're going to be known as one of the best Arizona teams to play."
But that's just being modest.
As recently as November, this young team was operating with a learner's permit. On Thursday night, the Wildcats were fully licensed to be considered one of the special teams in school history.