Souhan: U's Williams bounces back, discards 'old me'

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 30, 2013 - 11:31 AM
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Rodney Williams (33) finished a dunk in the first half. Williams had 19 points in the first half.

Photo: Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

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Rodney Williams caught the pass in the paint, rose toward the rafters and slammed home a dunk so unfettered the ball took a giant hop off the raised floor and landed about five rows deep.

Next time, he should call his shot, and warn his father.

"I didn't follow it that far," Williams said, when asked if he saw where the ball landed. "I like it when it does that, though. Especially on that end of the floor, because my Dad sits over there. Maybe one day, he'll get to catch a ball. He might not give it back, though.

"Maybe I'll try for that next game.''

Tuesday night, the Gophers basketball team found Nebraska to be as cleansing as anti-bacterial soap. The sins and waste of a four-game losing streak washed right off, however temporarily, in an 84-65 victory that proved Williams still has some eligibility left in his senior season.

Williams dunked on the first possession of Tuesday's game and never slowed. He finished with 23 points, a career-high for him in Big Ten play and one off his personal best. In 33 minutes, he made eight of his 13 shots, made all six of his free throws, and contributed five rebounds, two assists, two steals and a block.

Williams scored 15 points in the first Big Ten game of his senior season, a rousing victory at The Barn over Michigan State. He averaged eight points in his next six games, scoring just two in an unsightly loss this week at Wisconsin. In that game, after Trevor Mbakwe was fouled while injuring his wrist, Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan picked Williams to shoot two free throws for Mbawke, who had to leave the game.

Williams made the first, then missed the second, and Wisconsin won 45-44.

"After the game, coach Ryan kind of apologized, saying that was a tough spot to put me in,'' Williams said.

"But that's part of the game. That's why I came here, to be put in situations like that. I didn't capitalize that time, but now I'm working on my free throws every day, so if I get put in that situation again, the outcome will be different.

"This is real big for me, coming off a big skid of games, where I was really just out there. I wasn't helping my team much.''

For a night, he was the spectacular athlete and active presence the Gophers so badly need him to be if they are to save this once-promising season.

The Gophers end the January portion of their schedule at 4-4 in the Big Ten. Since the beginning of Big Ten play during the 2010-2011 season, coach Tubby Smith has presided over five losing streaks of four games or more, including the one that ended Tuesday night.

During the 2010-11 Big Ten season, the Gophers suffered losing streaks of four and five games. During the 2011-12 Big Ten season, they suffered losing streaks of four and six games.

Smith's record in Big Ten games played in December and January is 25-25. His Big Ten record in February is worse, 12-25.

Either Smith loses his players' attention during the season, or opposing coaches are able to take away the Gophers' strengths with game planning, or both. To reverse such trends, the Gophers will need Williams at his best, and he knows it.

After the game, Williams lobbied for his coach to continue running a full-court press. Williams wants to be in the open court, where every loose ball is the prelude to a dunk.

"This was definitely a big relief for me, personally,'' Williams said. "These last four or five games, I wasn't playing my best basketball. This was a big confidence boost.

"I'd miss a couple of shots and just dwell on that. That was the old me.''

Only in college sports can you hear a 21-year-old talk about "the old me.''

The "new'' Williams isn't thinking about missed free throws. He's looking forward to his last five games in Williams Arena, where he hopes to bounce more dunks in his father's general direction.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500-AM. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com

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