Then the official handed him the basketball and suddenly he felt transported to the middle of some tropical paradise.
As if it were a drill in the middle of practice, the junior guard calmly sank both foul shots and lifted Jacksonville State to a 65-64 victory over Murray State for its first-ever win over the perennial Ohio Valley Conference power.
JSU coach James Green called it the biggest victory in his five years with the program, trumping the one-point road win at UMass in his first season and last year’s OVC Tournament win over Austin Peay, and it all came down to Williams’ free throws.
“When I went to the line I had all this stuff in my head,” Williams said. “At first I heard the crowd. Then I heard them say they had no time outs, so I knew if we hit both they’d have to throw up a Hail Mary. Coach told us we had never beaten them in the history of our program, so I was thinking about that.
“Once the ref threw me the ball and I caught it, it was like everything blocked out. I was just focusing on me and the rim, like I was by myself in the gym. Once I hit the first one, I knew I was going to make the second.”
Williams made it to the line following a mad long-stride dash up the floor after Brandon Garrett’s layup put Murray ahead 64-63 with nine seconds to play. The basket came after the Racers turned over the Gamecocks on the baseline.
Williams went hard to the basket and was fouled by Jeffrey Moss, officially with 2.4 seconds to play. When he stepped to the line and got a word of encouragement from senior forward Ronnie Boggs, there wasn’t a JSU player or coach who didn’t believe the 62-percent career free throw shooter would make them.
They had played well enough to win, it was just a matter of slamming the door.
“We’re just thinking we really played a good game, well enough to win, do we deserve to win?” Green said. “I felt like if we really had done those things that he would step up there and make them, and his concentration was as good as I’ve seen him on a free throw.”
“Clutch, that’s the word I have for it,” guard Mason Leggett said. “He’s been a big part of this team all year. Once he hit the first one I just knew he was hitting the second one.”
Williams led the Gamecocks (14-7, 6-4 OVC) with 17 points. Boggs and Tarvin Gaines each scored 13 and Leggett added 12.
It was Leggett’s first double-digit scoring game since he went for 12 at Murray last year, but even more important was his defense on Murray guard Isaiah Canaan.
The Racers’ Wooden Award candidate and OVC Preseason Player of the Year scored 20 points to lead all scorers in the game, but Leggett, playing what Green praised as “one of the best games he’s had in that uniform,” didn’t make it easy.
Canaan was 6 of 17 from the floor, 1 of 5 from 3-point range, including the desperation heave from three-quarters quarter at the horn. He had only four points at halftime.
“One of the key things was not letting him turn the corner on the ball screens,” Leggett said. “I just took the challenge. Coach said he was one of the best players in the league and we took it upon ourselves as a team to rise to the occasion and make the stops that we needed in order to win. I feel like we did a good job on him.”
Equally important was the Gamecocks’ typically strong 3-point defense holding Murray’s deft outside shooters to 1 of 8 from 3-point range in the first half while building a 30-21 lead. The Racers (15-5, 6-2) were 4 of 18 beyond the arc in the game.
The Gamecocks were 0-16 all-time against Murray, the only team in the OVC they had never beaten. With the win they now are guaranteed no worse than a .500 season, their first non-losing season since 2005-06. One more and they will match last season’s victory total while clinching a winning season.
Making it even more significant is it came on the heels of beating Austin Peay Thursday night.
“It’s known JSU hasn’t beaten Murray since we’ve been Division I, so we wanted to be the first time do it and kind of make history,” Boggs said. “Knowing we can’t go to the (OVC) Tournament, this is a win that let’s people know if we were able to go we could have gone and made some noise.”
The only thing missing from the day was the Pete Mathews Coliseum crowd rushing the floor when the horn sounded, like Leggett watched Miami’s fans do earlier this week in the Hurricanes’ upset of then-No. 1 Duke.
“I was hoping for a storm,” Leggett said. “It would have been my first. I wanted to see the kids storm the court. I would’ve enjoyed that. What college athlete wouldn’t want to be a part of that? I’d have loved that.”