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Williams’ knack for drawing contact sparks No. 1 Tennessee

January 24, 2019
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Tennessee forward Grant Williams (2) scores against Vanderbilt forward Clevon Brown (15) in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. Williams scored a career-high 41 points and was 23 for 23 at the free throw line as Tennessee won 88-83 in overtime. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee’s Grant Williams finds ways to get to the free-throw line.

And once he’s there, Williams converts. It’s part of what makes him the most impactful player on the top-ranked team in the country.

Williams made all 23 of his free-throw attempts Wednesday in a 43-point performance to lead the Volunteers to an 88-83 overtime victory over Vanderbilt.

“I don’t think there are many guys in the country who possess the combination of physical and mental toughness, skill level, determination and swagger that he possesses,” Florida coach Michael White said.

Williams has emerged as a legitimate candidate for national player of the year honors.

He leads the SEC in scoring (20.3) and ranks second in field-goal percentage (.569). He ranks eighth in rebounds (7.5) and assists (3.6).

His one weakness has been occasional foul trouble. Williams has fouled out four times this season. Tennessee’s only loss of the season came in overtime against Kansas after Williams fouled out late in regulation time.

But the 6-foot-7, 236-pound junior is generally drawing fouls rather than committing them.

Williams scores seven points per game from the foul line to lead all Division I players. His leads all Division I juniors in career free throws made (414) and attempted (550). Williams is 42 of 44 on free-throw attempts over his last three games.

“He does a great job of knowing when to be physical and then also knowing when to absorb a lot of contact and get to the free-throw line,” Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew said. “Not a lot of players have the IQ that he does. I think even though he’s big and strong, he has a great basketball IQ and uses his body extremely well.”

Williams said there was no secret to his success against Vanderbilt.

“It’s just a matter of coming in, doing the job and executing,” Williams said after the game. “My teammates put me in a lot of great spots. I did a good job of using my physicality to get to the free throw line, and everybody did what they needed to do.”

Williams was one shy of the NCAA Division I single-game record of 24 consecutive successful free throws, set by Oklahoma State’s Arlen Clark on March 7, 1959. He posted the highest single-game point total of any Tennessee player since Allan Houston also scored 43 against LSU on Feb. 10, 1990.

Williams wasn’t always this accurate from the foul line. He made just 66.7 percent of his free throws as a freshman and improved to 76.4 percent last year.

This season, he’s sinking 84.6 percent of his free throws. Williams said he made free-throw shooting an emphasis of his offseason training.

“If he gets fouled, we’ve told him he’s got to be able to convert free throws for us, and he’s done that,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “He’s worked at it.”

And improved his overall game along the way.

Williams was only the nation’s No. 191 prospect in his high school class, according to composite rankings of recruiting sites compiled by 247Sports. He selected Tennessee over some Ivy League and mid-major programs.

The decision has worked out well for Williams.

He emerged as Tennessee’s second-leading scorer in his freshman year and was selected by SEC coaches as the league’s player of the year in his sophomore season. Now he’s helping a Tennessee team that lacks a single top-100 recruit adjust to the pressure that accompanies the No. 1 ranking.

Tennessee (17-1) has 13 straight victories for its longest winning streak since the 1922-23 season, but the Vols needed to come from behind to beat Vanderbilt in their first game since moving atop the rankings.

Williams said the Vols learned their lesson. Tennessee’s next test comes Saturday when it hosts West Virginia (9-10) as part of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.

“Everyone wants to be that team that says, ‘I knocked off the No. 1 team in the country,’” Williams said. “That’s how we were back in the day. That’s how we thought every time we played like a Kentucky when we were freshmen or any time we played Carolina.”

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Follow Steve Megargee at https://twitter.com/stevemegargee

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