Posted: Friday November 25, 2005 11:24PM; Updated: Friday November 25, 2005 11:47PM
Shawne Williams is averaging 16.25 points a game four contests into his freshman season.
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NEW YORK -- After leading his team with 41 points in consecutive games against ranked opponents -- just the third and fourth contests of his college career -- Shawne Williams sat in a Madison Square Garden locker room, boiling with frustration over three points he didn't get.
"I just knew that shot was going in," the Tigers freshman said of a missed 3-point attempt at the buzzer that would have sent Friday night's NIT Season Tip-Off championship game against No. 1 Duke to overtime. "I guess I was meant to learn from this experience."
The college basketball world learned a great deal from the assorted holiday festivals that played out around the continent this week, and the primary lessons from New York were this: Duke has a long ways to go if it intends to fulfill its prophecy as the nation's top team of 2005-06, and the most impressive freshman in the country is neither of the Blue Devils' touted prodigies, JoshMcRoberts or Greg Paulus, but rather a silky-smooth, 6-foot-9 swingman from Memphis.
The scoreboard will show that top-ranked Duke emerged as champion from the 16-team NIT field, holding off the No. 11 Tigers 70-67 in Friday night's final behind a dominating performance from preseason All-American Shelden Williams (30 points, eight rebounds). Duke's Williams captured tournament MVP honors, but if there was an award for the event's breakout player, it undoubtedly would have gone to the Williams in the other locker room.
In torching UCLA for 26 points (including 5-of-7 on 3-pointers) in Wednesday night's semifinal and leading his team back in the final minutes against Duke (finishing with team highs of 15 points and eight rebounds in just 23 minutes), Shawne Williams upstaged the Tigers' two veteran stars, Rodney Carney and Darius Washington. "[Williams] is our best player," said Memphis coach John Calipari.
With help from promising classmates Chris Douglas-Roberts, Antonio Anderson, Robert Dozier and Kareem Cooper, Williams is the reason Calipari's '05-'06 team looks far more dangerous than last season's disappointing, turmoil-plagued NIT squad. Less than two weeks into the season, the predominately young Tigers (seven of their top eight players are freshmen or sophomores) have shown poise well beyond their years, demolishing one of last year's Sweet Sixteen teams (Wisconsin-Milwaukee), going on the road and beating a top-15 Alabama team, leading by as much as 22 in an 88-80 win over the Bruins and, in perhaps the most telling statement of all, taking the No. 1 team in the country to the final buzzer.
"This right here makes me realize what kind of team we have," Carney, the Tigers' lone senior starter, said of the Duke game. "We're pretty good, in my opinion."
He's hardly alone in his opinion. Memphis played far from its best game Friday night, shooting just 32.4 percent in the second half, failing to contain Duke's Williams and getting a limited performance from banged-up point guard Washington (bruised thigh). Yet the Tigers never trailed by more than seven in the second half, and, with 57.5 seconds left, the super-frosh Williams stepped to the free-throw line with a chance to hit two shots and tie the score at 67.
"I knew he would make those free throws," said Calipari. "I looked at him and said, 'You were made for this moment.' And he went in and just nailed them. He was born for that kind of stuff."