NEW YORK CITY — It was scripted, an event written in the stars, four years in the making.
That’s what the Big Ten Tournament coming to Madison Square Garden felt like to Mike Williams, a Brooklyn native who played high school ball five miles away at Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School.
The Rutgers guard waited all of his senior season for the moment to arrive and once the backdrop of Williams’ last year in college basketball finally arrived, it felt like a dream.
With all the negativity surrounding the conference tournament taking place in the Big Apple, Williams represents a shining positive on commissioner Jim Delany’s decision.
“It’s a surreal feeling,” Williams said. “I think the Big Ten did this on purpose. I’m very appreciative of this because who would’ve thought my senior year I would get to finish it here at the Garden in my hometown. I’m thankful and appreciative of that … I don’t know (if it was on purpose). If that’s what it is, I thank the commissioner, I thank everybody. My family thanks them too.”
It wasn’t the first time he played at the venue — Rutgers faced Fordham and Wisconsin there last season — but the stakes were never as high as they were Wednesday night.
Williams showed no fear and rose to the task. Making just his second start of the season, the guard was the only Scarlet Knight not named Corey Sanders to score in the double-digits, contributing 12 points on 50 percent shooting to go with his five rebounds as the Scarlet Knights defeated Minnesota 65-54.
His final board came with Rutgers nine points with 30 seconds to play and put a very unlikely Minnesota comeback completely to rest. Williams then went to the free throw line, where he received cheers from the thousands of Rutgers fans who made the trek up to the city to support the hometown team.
As he always has, the hometown kid appreciated his fanbase.
“I’m very appreciative of the Rutgers faithful,” Williams said. “They stuck with me in my whole four years. We had a lot of ups and downs so I’m very thankful. I’m trying to take every minute of it, trying to cherish every moment of it because I’m trying to survive and advance. I’m not trying to go home yet.”
Rutgers survived Minnesota to live to fight another day, suspending the end of its seniors careers for at least another game. For Williams, who fought through a significant ankle injury to be healthy enough to even take the floor at MSG, pushing past resistance is nothing new.
“I didn’t even know if he was going to be back for the season,” head coach Steve Pikiell said of Williams. “Real happy (for him). Mike’s been a great representative (of Rutgers). Dean’s list student and graduating on time, he’s been great, a four-year guy here. To get another win in the tournament so he can keep playing, certainly a great thing.”
Fellow backcourt starter Sanders knew what this moment meant for Williams, a guy he played alongside throughout his three years on the Banks. And so he thought of him and fellow seniors Deshawn Freeman and Candido Sa and Jake Dadika as he sank bucket after bucket and carried Rutgers offensively to victory.
“I came in with those guys, been fighting with them for three years now,” Sanders said. “You never want to go home. You may be tired but at the end of the season, you don’t want to go home, you want to play basketball because once it’s over, it’s nothing but class. We want to keep those guys fighting and send them home with a good experience.”
For the second straight season, 14th seeded Rutgers reaches the second day of the Big Ten Tournament, but their approach the second time around is vastly different. The subdued celebrations after Wednesday’s win pale in comparison to the exubarance in Washington D.C. a year ago, a more collected nature surrounding the win — and with good reason.
Last year’s Scarlet Knights got the doors blown off by Northwestern in the second round, falling on the wrong side of a blazing 31-0 first-half run from the Wildcats they could never recover from.
With Indiana looming in another late night bout, Rutgers is using last season’s experience and learning from it. And while he’s technically back where it all started, the last place Mike Williams wants to go is home.
“We have a never say die attitude,” Williams said of Rutgers. “Before the game, I told the team ‘hey listen, everyone is 0-0. This is a new season.’ Like coach said, the tougher team will advance. 40 (good minutes) gets you (another) 40 so it’s about surviving and advancing. (I told the team) I don’t know about y’all, but I’m a senior and I’m not trying to go home right now … this year, we’re going to keep focused (after a first round win). We let last year’s victory get to our head. We just got to stay focused. Hopefully we come and play the same way we played (tonight) and get a win.”