Notebook: Brooklyn native Mike Williams leads Rutgers past Fordham at Madison Square Garden
NEW YORK — Mike Williams couldn't put the feeling into words.
During his first two seasons on the Banks, the Rutgers men's basketball team went a combined 17-47 with out-of-conference losses to the likes of St. Peter's, George Washington and Saint Francis.
Now, Williams was sitting alongside first-year head coach Steve Pikiell after the Scarlet Knights had wrapped up the heavily mid-major portion of their schedule with a 68-53 win over Fordham at Madison Square Garden to move to 11-1 on the season.
"I'm speechless to be honest," Williams said.
Williams had his fingerprints all over the Knights' 11th win of the season, a mark Rutgers failed to reach in each of the junior guard's prior two seasons. Playing a short subway ride away from his hometown, the Brooklyn native poured in a team and season-high 19 points, while also chipping in six rebounds.
"I've been here before so I've got a feel for the court already," Williams said. "It was fun to have my family and friends in the crowd. It was just great to play in the Garden again."
Rutgers' upward trend this season has coincided with career-best play from Williams. Coming off the bench, Williams entered the day shooting a blitzing 48.2 percent from the field and a respectable 36 percent clip from deep.
This comes after the New York City product shot 32 and 38 percent from the field, respectively, and under 32 percent from deep in his first two seasons.
And Williams' hot shooting continued on Sunday, as he connected on 7 of his 12 shots from the field and 2 of 4 from deep. The Knights' sixth man was also 3-for-5 from the free throw line.
"Mike has been great all year. He was what I expect," Pikiell said. "He's really a guy I can count on defensively and offensively. I thought he was really solid today. We needed great poise today and you saw that in him every time he touched the ball. They play a unique style and Mike was locked in from the get go. So it was great to see. He's having a great year."
Rutgers got off to a sluggish start on offense, trailing the Rams 8-7 heading into the first media timeout at the 14:21 mark of the first half. Williams checked into the game for the first time out of the stoppage in play and personally got Rutgers rolling offensively, propelling it ahead for the first time with eight consecutive points of his own.
After leading the Knights to a 34-20 halftime lead with 10 first-half points, Williams proved large with timely buckets for the Knights multiple times in the second half.
After connecting on just 1 of its 12 attempts from beyond the arc in the first half, Fordham found its shooting stroke early in the second half to help trim its 14-point halftime deficit down to six.
Pikiell would be forced to use an early timeout, after which he would go on to sub in Williams less than two minutes into the latter half. Just as he provided instant offense in the first half, Williams got to the bucket right out of the timeout to halt the Rams' scoring run.
Minutes later Fordham hit another three to slash Rutgers' lead to seven, but Williams answered right back with a three of his own from beyond the NBA line.
Then, after the teams traded baskets for the next six-plus minutes, Williams took a defensive rebound the length of the court and converted on a lay-up despite getting fouled in the act. Williams' eventual three-point play gave the Knights a 52-40 advantage with just under eight minutes to play, a double-digit distance they wouldn't relinquish for the remainder of the game.
"It's a surreal feeling," Williams said of the Knights' strong start to the season. "I've been through a lot in my first two years here at Rutgers and for me to be on the other side of the tracks is just great."
After picking up an 11th win for the first time in his Rutgers career, Williams will look to capture another first on Friday night when the Knights take on Seton Hall at the Prudential Center. Not only have the Pirates beaten Rutgers in the past two years, but they've ran the Knights out of the gym on both occasions.
The Knights have lost by an average of 28 points in the last two meetings, as Seton Hall has taken the last three meetings overall.
"It goes back a long time it's a story, the battle of New Jersey," Williams said of the rivalry with Seton Hall. "We've lost to them a few times. We just gotta prepare ourselves for Friday night. It's going to be a great environment at the Prudential Center and they won the Big East last year. We just gotta prepare for them."