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Behind Relentless Optimism, Mike Williams Prepares For One Last Go-Around

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The New York City native wasn’t about to miss the Big Ten Tournament in his own backyard without a fight

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

COLLEGE PARK, Md -- Rutgers senior guard Mike Williams scored 4 points and picked up two rebounds and two assists against Maryland Saturday night, an unimpressive statline when seen without context. Look to where Williams was a little over a month ago and the fact he played 27 minutes would be his most impressive feat regardless of his stats.

Williams suffered a seemingly serious ankle injury in practice January 13, one which threatened to take away the final three months of his college season. Forget the countless tough losses, the coaching changes and shooting struggles he faced in his four years on the Banks — this was the hardest challenge he had faced in his entire career.

While many were convinced it was the end of his college career, Williams remained optimistic. He never wavered, posting multiple times on social media about his eventual comeback.

“I definitely believed,” he said. “You just can’t have doubt in yourself, you have to have positive mindset, got to be in high spirits.”

It was with that determined spirit that Williams rehabbed his ankle on a daily basis, churning out miles on the exercise bike as he watched his teammates grind through days and weeks of practice. On gameday, the most energetic player on his team navigated the court at the Rutgers Athletic Center on crutches, sitting hopelessly on the bench wishing he could get just a few minutes of action to do what he does best — make a difference.

“I have no words for it,” Williams said of those moments. “It was just frustrating because I feel like a few plays, especially in the Nebraska game at home, the Purdue game at home, even the Ohio State game at home, I feel like if I was out there, I probably could have done something, played defense or hit a big shot, try to get us a win. It’s just frustrating watching.”

Watching his team come close to pulling off the biggest upset in program history against the Boilermakers and letting a close one slip to the Huskers further fueled the fire within Williams to return to the court.

Against all odds and even his most optimistic expectations, he accomplished his goal.

Less than a month after sustaining the devastating injury, Williams checked into the Scarlet Knights second meeting with Nebraska, this time in Lincoln. The Scarlet Knights didn’t get the win, but they got 16 minutes out of their glue guy and senior captain.

“It means a lot (to be back),” Williams said. “It’s my senior year, I didn’t want to be finished, I didn’t want to be sidelined the rest of my senior year so it’s good to be back out there with the guys.”

The transition hasn’t been completely seamless.

While Williams played in three straight games, he did so with visible discomfort — he winced on multiple occasions throughout Saturday’s game with the Terrapins — and has not produced as much as he did before the injury. But the signs all point in a positive direction as his minutes increased in each of the three contests, setting up a full speed approach en route to Madison Square Garden, host of this season’s Big Ten Tournament.

It’s the final go-around in the conference tournament for Williams and it’s happening in his hometown of New York City — there was no way he was missing this.

“I told myself ‘there’s no way I’m going to miss my last year, especially when it’s going to be at my hometown,’” Williams said. “There’s no way I was going to miss that, so I just had to fight through it.”

But first comes the end of the regular season and the goals Williams has in mind as he closes up shop on his Rutgers career.

“Just win these next two games,” Williams said when asked how he’d like his last regular season week to go. “Get into the middle of the pack somehow.”