COLUMBUS, Ohio – His man threw up the last shot, and he prayed. The ball sailed wide, and he ran – ran back toward the bench, ran into a teammate, ran wherever his legs carried him. No. 11 seed North Carolina State had upset No. 3 Georgetown 66-63 Sunday, and C.J. Williams was going to the Sweet 16.
"Honestly, I think I did a Jim Valvano," Williams said. "I didn't know what to do. I just started running around."
His father stood still in the second row. Wendell Williams looked down and tapped his heart. He covered his face with his hand to hide his tears. The late-night practice sessions, the money and the miles, the slump and the pep talk – all of it had led to this moment.
C.J. Williams, a 6-foot-5 swingman, had spent four years wondering if he would make the NCAA tournament. He had struggled down the stretch of his senior season. Now he had helped the Wolfpack erase a 10-point first-half deficit, beat the kind of team it hadn't beaten and advance in the Midwest Region. The Wolfpack, in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2005, will face No. 2 Kansas or No. 10 Purdue on Friday in St. Louis.
"I'm just overcome with emotion," Wendell Williams said, sniffling. "I'm just so happy for him because he'd worked so hard since he was 4 years old to do this, and I'm just ... just ... I'm just without words."
Wendell coached C.J. in AAU. He helped with C.J.'s high school team in Fayetteville, N.C. Some nights, father and son would work out, grab a bite to eat, relax a little bit and head right back to the gym to work out some more. They would keep going as late as 2 a.m.
Then came college. There were a few more late-night workouts, the last one as recent as winter break, but mostly Wendell supported C.J. by showing up to for his games. He has missed only two. He has traveled from Stanford to Syracuse. He has spent tens of thousands of dollars and put about 100,000 miles on his 2010 Honda Pilot.
He has done it even though he is an environmental engineer for the Air Force and was transferred from North Carolina to Georgia in December 2010. He has done it even though – maybe especially because – the Wolfpack wasn't good enough to be a tournament team during C.J.'s first three seasons.
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C.J. had a chance to graduate early last spring, after NCSU hired a new coach, Mark Gottfried. The first time C.J. spoke to Gottfried, he told him he didn't want to waste his last year of eligibility on a rebuilding project.
"I would have left and tried to go somewhere where we could win right away," C.J. said. "But he told me, 'I'm not coming to rebuild anything. I'm coming to improve.' So I felt comfortable with him."
And Gottfried felt comfortable with C.J., doubling his playing time from last season, from 17.6 minutes to 31.0. C.J. shot 52.9 percent from the field through the first 29 games of the season.
But then C.J. went cold. He had hit only one 3-pointer in the last seven games before he arrived in Columbus. He didn't even attempt one in Friday's 79-65 victory over No. 6 San Diego State.
In the hotel restaurant afterward, Wendell and C.J. sat down together. Wendell let C.J. speak first, so he could get off his chest whatever he felt was wrong. Then father told son to get his legs into his shot and stay confident in it.
"He just kept telling me, 'You're not here for no reason,' " C.J. said. " 'You've had a great year. Just continue to be confident in what you can do.' "
The Wolfpack needed Williams at his best against the Hoyas, whose size inside would force outside shots – and whose perimeter defense was among the best in the country. The Wolfpack would have to hit shots to stretch the defense.
Fifteen minutes into the game Sunday, the Wolfpack trailed by 10. The players could have caved. They hadn't beaten a ranked team during the regular season, and they were the last team shown on the NCAA tournament selection show. It was one thing to beat a small San Diego State team. This was something else.
But then C.J. Leslie hit a jumper. Down by eight. Then Leslie missed two foul shots, and Williams tipped in the second rebound. Down by six. Then Lorenzo Brown hit a "3," and Williams converted a layup, and Williams hit a "3."
Up by two.
"I think it really started with the rebound I got off the free throw," C.J. Williams said. "Just seeing the ball go through the basket, that's good for anybody that can shoot the ball."
Williams hit another 3-pointer as the Wolfpack extended its lead to 11 in the second half.
The Hoyas roared back, and the lead started to look as if it would slip away. With about three minutes left, Brown turned to Williams.
"I told him this is not his last game," Brown said.
It continued to look as if it would slip away anyway. The lead dwindled to one with 35 seconds left. But Brown, who had made key shots all day, was good on his word. He made three foul shots in the final 10 seconds as the Wolfpack held on.
Williams finished with 14 points, tied with Leslie and Scott Wood for the team lead. He hit two 3-pointers in a game for the first time in a month. He danced around the court. He embraced Gottfried.
"Thank God Coach Gottfried came," Wendell Williams said as he watched from the second row. "He believed in my son, and my son never wavered in his faith. We just told him to keep working hard, and it'll pay off."
In the locker room afterward, C.J. Williams sat on a folding chair. His eyes were red.
Told his father had wept in the stands, he said, "I want to find him right now. The things that me and him have been through, the times where we were in the gym late at night …"
"Other people are sleeping, and we're in the gym and he's working me out," he continued. "The times I made him mad, not going as hard as he wanted me to ... I just want to thank him for that."
C.J. might want to wait. His father has at least one more trip to make.
On to St. Louis.
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- Wendell Williams