Williams’ dunks serve as spark for Gophers

MINNEAPOLIS — Showtime.

That was the first thing Minnesota point guard Andre Hollins thought when he saw teammate Rodney Williams step in front of a North Dakota State pass at center court and take off. There was nobody in front of the Gophers senior. All that awaited him was a wide-open basket — and plenty of room to fly.

As soon as Williams took one dribble down court, fans at Williams Arena knew they were in for a treat. They’ve witnessed Williams’ high-flying feats over the past three and a half years and have seen the athletic Minneapolis native do some amazing things once airborne.

Tuesday was no different. After corralling the loose ball following the steal, Williams took one dribble toward the basket and launched himself. While in the air, he spun like a top, 360 degrees, before flushing the ball with two hands and raising the decibel level of the home crowd.

“That’s what Rodney does,”  fellow senior Trevor Mbakwe said. “He gets the crowd excited.”

When Williams stole the ball, the Gophers were clinging to a 24-20 lead over the visiting Bison with less than six minutes to go in the first half. His dunk was part of a 15-6 Minnesota run that helped the Gophers close out the first half with an 11-point lead.

The 360 jam certainly looked impressive, both in person and on television — it was the No. 1 highlight on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” Top 10 on Tuesday night, two spots ahead of Mbakwe’s put-back dunk. But it did more than just wow the crowd. It helped spark the Gophers for the rest of the half (and the game) on the way to their 70-57 victory.

“When any of our teammates get going, I think it brings a lot of energy to the rest of the team,” junior Austin Hollins said. “At home, when you’ve got the crowd going, that brings a lot of energy to the team, too.”

Through Tuesday, Williams has 26 dunks in 12 games this season and 134 for his four-year career. Not all of them have been as flashy as Tuesday’s spin-o-rama, but Williams has pulled off the 360 before.

Having seen that dunk in the past, Williams’ teammates are pushing him to take his dunk game up a notch.

“I told him to do something new, though,” Andre Hollins said.

Said Williams: “I got nervous, man. I had to do what I know was going to go in, so I did the 360. You saw I almost broke my back afterwards, so maybe next time I’ll lay it up or something.”

Chances are slim that Williams would settle for a layup on another breakaway opportunity. So what does he have in his bag of tricks for his next dunk?

“It all depends on the score. If the score’s close, you might see another 360,” he said. “These guys want me to do a windmill, so I’ll try that next. I’m not too fond of missing dunks, so I don’t know.”

Neither is his head coach, Tubby Smith. Minnesota’s sixth-year coach often downplays Williams’ aerials — even saying at times last season that he didn’t happen to see a Williams dunk.

Smith was likely saying it in jest, as it’s hard to turn away when Williams gets the ball in the open floor.

“I think my freshman year when I got my first 360, I definitely think he wasn’t ready for that one,” Williams said of Smith. “I think he’s getting used to it now.”

That’s not the case with Gophers fans. Williams’ 360 dunk Tuesday came right in front of Minnesota’s student section, nicknamed the Barnyard Animals. They were the quickest to react to the dunk. In fact, they held their collective breath in anticipation of what Williams was about to do.

“When I got the steal initially, I was just going to dunk it regular,” he said. “But I knew I had to do something because I heard the crowd.”

Williams might feel the pressure from his teammates to try a new dunk, but there’s also added pressure to deliver a show for the fans.

On Tuesday, he did just that.

“Nobody can compete with Rodney,” Mbakwe said. “He’s a highlight reel. I think he’s the best dunker ever in the Big Ten. That’s my opinion.”

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