Donovan Williams’ challenge early in the season was finding the right balance between being a Nebraska men’s basketball recruit and a Lincoln North Star player doing what’s best for the Navigators on the court.
At times in December, that balancing act wasn’t easy for the 6-foot-5 junior guard. The four-star national prospect, the first in Lincoln in almost 15 years, felt pressure to perform as a future Husker.
“At the beginning of the season, I was feeling it a lot,” said Williams, who will play his first game on his college home floor Thursday when the No. 7 Navigators take on No. 3 and defending state champion Creighton Prep at 2 p.m. in the first round of the Class A state tournament at Pinnacle Bank Arena. Prep also features a Husker recruit, 6-6 senior Super-Stater Akol Arop.
“I wanted to make sure I was impressing people,” Williams said.
The harder he tried, however, the more he seemed to struggle. He was just 21-of-81 from the field in North Star’s five losses in December, a sign that things needed to change, Williams said.
“I looked back at the stats from those five games, and they were not where they needed to be,” Williams said. “I have teammates who can score and I needed to give them the opportunity to do that, and then that would open things up for me.
“I don’t want our team to be one-dimensional,” Williams added. “If all five guys on the floor can score and three can get over 10 (points), that’s what we need to win. I’ll get my 20-plus every game if the defense has to worry about them, too.”
A more well-rounded scoring attack around Williams has not only made him more effective, it’s provided the spark for North Star’s 8-2 run in the last 10 games that’s landed the Gators (16-8) in the state tournament for the first time since 2012.
Williams is still the No. 1 priority on the opponents’ scouting report, averaging 21.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists and two steals per game. He demonstrated his ability to take over a game in last week’s 55-54 win at Kearney in the district finals, a game in which North Star trailed by 12 early in the fourth quarter, only to see the Navigators finish with a 22-9 run.
Williams had 14 of his game-high 30 points in the final period, including the game-winning three-pointer with 4.8 seconds left.
“When it’s crunch time, my teammates have faith in me to take over a game,” Williams said. “They gave me the ball and I did what I do best.”
Even in the fourth quarter, those other offensive options played a role. Sophomore point guard Kwat Abdelkarim sank a three-pointer to start the rally and cut Kearney’s lead to nine. Josiah Allick, a 6-7 senior who’s suddenly emerged as a Division I recruit, had five points in the game-ending rally.
Allick averages 15.5 points and 9.8 rebounds, a strong complement to Williams’ production. The 6-2 Abdelkarim had 22 points in the 77-71 overtime loss to Creighton Prep on Jan. 26, a game Williams went off for 36. Arop, his future NU teammate, had 30 in the win.
Jared Lopez, a 6-3 junior post, has also been a factor offensively, averaging nine points per game. He exploded for 23 points in a win at Lincoln East three days after the loss to Prep.
“The biggest difference in our team is we’re sharing the basketball and we’re getting scoring from multiple people,” North Star coach Tony Quattrocchi said. “Donovan put too much pressure on himself early and tried to do way more than he needed to for this team.
“Donovan just needed to have fun playing basketball and not worry about outside factors like social media,” the North Star coach added. “He’s done a better job of blocking those things out.”
In the last 10 games, North Star has avenged losses to two teams (Kearney and Grand Island) and beaten two teams in the state tournament field (Kearney and Papillion-La Vista South).
Williams and the coach think the district final win on the road in a jam-packed, noisy gym at Kearney will serve the Gators well at state, even though Prep has more experience playing at PBA.
“That’s the loudest high school gym I’ve ever heard,” Quattrocchi said about the district final. “We feel like playing at Kearney, at (Lincoln) East and at Norfolk has prepared us to play in the big arena at state.
“There’s no pressure on us, Creighton Prep is the No. 2 seed and the defending state champion,” Quattrocchi added. “We’re going to play loose and play free, and when we do that, that’s when we play our best.”