STANFORD, Calif. - Just when the Arizona Wildcats' present looked dimmest Saturday, the future appeared.
Going without upperclassmen Nic Wise and Jamelle Horne in a tie game during the final seconds at Stanford, the Wildcats instead were carried to a dramatic 71-69 win by younger players.
Freshman center Derrick Williams, having hit 1 of 2 free throws with 30 seconds left to tie the game at 69, dived inside to block a shot by Stanford's Jack Trotter with five seconds left. Then sophomore guard Brendon Lavender picked up the rebound and fired it quickly to nervy freshman guard MoMo Jones, who banked in a 16-footer at the buzzer to win it.
"Just give me the ball and get out of the way," Jones said of his mentality at the time. "I like the pressure. I've always thrived under pressure. It's a great feeling to win with big-time shots. Every player wants to have that feeling."
Jones said the victory showed that he and his teammates had a "lot of heart," after they had lost five of their previous six games, including a 24-point blowout loss Thursday at California.
The win moved the Wildcats back to .500 at 14-14 overall and 8-8 in the Pac-10 with two games remaining - against UCLA on Thursday night and against USC on Saturday, both at McKale Center. Stanford dropped to 13-16 and 7-10.
A loss would have put the UA two games under .500 and on the outer fringe of even the NIT bubble. They teetered toward that scenario in the final seconds without Wise, who had hit two game-winners in December and willed the Wildcats to wins in many others over his four-year career.
But it wasn't scary for UA coach Sean Miller, who said Friday he was going to look more often to players who give strong efforts and could key the future. Miller did just that with his playing time management Saturday, and wound up receiving not only the game-winning heroics of Williams and Jones but a full 83 percent of his scoring from freshmen and sophomores.
Williams led the Wildcats in scoring with 24 points while Jones had 16.
"It wasn't a gamble," Miller said of his late-game lineup. "They deserved to play. To me, that's the job you have as a coach, to play the players based on performance, not on what's happened in the past. I thought MoMo and Derrick, both guys, have been getting better and better."
They weren't perfect, of course. Jones missed 3 of 4 three-pointers and Williams missed 5 of 12 free throws, including two at the beginning of the second half, one that could have tied the game at 63 with 4:52 left and the first of two with 30 seconds that could have given UA a victory without Jones' game-winner.
"After that first one, I just wanted to concentrate and get that second one," Williams said of his final free throws. "Then if they missed a shot we'd go to overtime."
Stanford did miss, but that's because Williams was all over Trotter's shot on Stanford's final possession. Williams said he was helping on Stanford's Landry Fields when he saw Trotter going in, then raced in for what he said was "a little bit" of a clean block on Trotter.
That wasn't quite what Trotter remembered, when asked if Williams hit him on the arm.
"Yeah, he did. One hundred percent," Trotter said. "But it doesn't come down to that."
For Trotter and the Cardinal, it was all the wasted opportunities before. Because while the UA struggled from the free-throw line (61 percent) and three-point range (35 percent), Stanford was even worse. The Cardinal was 1 of 9 from three-point range in the second half and hit only 6 of 13 free throws in the second half, failing to keep up the momentum from a 14-0 first half run that gave them a seven-point lead at halftime.
Arizona had taken advantage of Stanford's free throw trouble late in the game, pulling into a 64-64 tie with 4:10 left when Solomon Hill scored inside on an assist in the post from Williams. Fields had failed to convert a free throw for a three-point play, and missed two other free throws in the previous two minutes.
Although Fields hit a three-pointer to give Stanford a 69-65 lead with 2:30 left, Williams drove the lane to pick up a layup and foul, converting the free throw to cut the lead to 69-68.
Stanford and Arizona failed to score on their next possessions, and an ensuing three-point shot by Stanford's Emmanuel Igbinosa rimmed out with 1:10 to go, leaving the Cardinal with just a one-point lead entering the final minute.
Then, after Williams made the second of two free throws to tie it at 69 with 30 seconds left, he soon found out that the game wasn't going to go to overtime. Not with time on the clock, Jones on the floor, and the backboard glass waiting to be nailed perfectly.
"When I was younger, my dad taught me that shot," Jones said of the bank shot. "He said, 'This is going to be a key to the NBA. Not a lot of players can shoot that shot.' We practiced it and practiced it and tonight my dad was with me."
After it went in, everybody else was with Jones, too. The Wildcats piled on top of Jones once he fell to the Maples Pavilion floor, the much-needed victory in their hands.
It did not hurt a bit.
"I love it, man," Jones said. "Those are my guys. Those are my brothers."
• Who: UCLA at Arizona
• When: 8:30 p.m. Thursday
• TV: FSAZ
• Radio: 1290-AM, 107.5-FM