Jeenathan Williams started from a stand-still position at the free-throw line, took just two long strides and finger-rolled the ball inches from the rim into the basket.
It was the University at Buffalo’s first bucket of the second half, and it started the highly touted sophomore forward on the finest 20 minutes of basketball in his young career.
Williams scored 24 of his career-high 26 points in the second half to lead the Bulls to a 76-73 victory over Ohio University.
UB fans have been waiting for this kind of performance from Williams since he joined the program in 2018 as one of the most heralded recruits in school history.
The 6-foot-5 forward from Rochester was ranked as the No. 87 prep recruit in the country by Rivals and No. 29 in the nation among small forwards by ESPN when he signed with UB. He picked the Bulls over Syracuse, Pittsburgh, St. Bonaventure and Temple, among many others.
His high recruiting ranking reflected his athleticism more than his skill level.
Williams has an aircraft-carrier wing span of 85 inches. Zion Williamson, the freakish No. 1 pick in last summer’s NBA draft, is 6-6 with an 83-inch wing span.
But Williams has had to work a ton on his shooting and footwork over the past year after seeing nine minutes a game as a freshman. The fruits of his work are starting to show.
Tuesday’s game was his eighth straight in double figures. He’s averaging 11.7 ppg on the season and 15.5 over the last eight.
“I was just getting to my spots and picking the situations when I’d drive or shoot,” Williams said. “I was trying to stay poised.”
“Give Williams credit,” said Ohio coach Jeff Boals. “He just put his head down, drove us, scored in the paint, heavy left hand. I thought he was the difference.”
Williams scored 18 points over the last 10 minutes, including the go-ahead shot with 15 seconds left. UB got the ball to Williams 10 feet from the basket. He made two pivots, a long stride and scored near the rim to give the Bulls a 74-73 lead.
The Bulls then got a defensive turnover to seal the win.
“We ran a little set for him,” said UB coach Jim Whitesell. “He did a good job of driving it, using his footwork and getting a step-through. It was a nice finish.”
Williams, whose teammates call him Nate, gets most of his baskets in the lane, slashing to the rim or off offensive rebounds. But he has improved his shot a ton.
He was a cover-your-eyes 3-point shooter as a freshman, hitting just 10% (5 of 47). This year, he’s up to 31.4% (11 of 35) over the last seven games.
“Me and Rondo are always in the gym,” Williams said, referring to teammate Ronaldo Segu. “This summer, I spent a lot of time in the gym, working. Just shoot it with confidence.”
“His length is something, and his footwork is much better,” Whitesell said. “I think his maturity has really jumped up. He’s a much better listener. He takes criticism. He thinks I yell at him all the time. But he really takes it and registers it. He takes the content and forgets about the tone and gathers himself.”
UB improved to 11-6 overall and 2-2 in the Mid-American Conference. Ohio fell to 9-8 and 1-3.
It was a good win for the Bulls because their best player had an off night. Junior Jayvon Graves had just nine points on 2 of 10 shooting.
Picking up the slack in addition to Williams was senior guard Antwain Johnson, who scored 18 points on 7 of 12 shooting. Johnson, a transfer who sat out last season, made 39% from 3-point range for Middle Tennessee two years ago. He has been shooting a mere 23.7% behind the arc this year. So his 3 of 6 3-point shooting night was encouraging.
“I still know I’m a good shooter,” Johnson said. “I kind of lost the feel a little bit after sitting out a year. But I’m getting way more comfortable with it. And coach has trust in me.”
Johnson has helped UB on the defensive perimeter this year and took a big charge with 1:11 left.
Ohio got 28 points from power forward Ben Vander Plas and 27 from sophomore point guard Jason Preston.
UB’s next game is at Central Michigan on Saturday.