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Texas 79, Sam Houston State 63: Donovan Williams working back to full strength

Sophomore with four screws in his kneecap, who has battled through all sorts of knee troubles, looking good vs. Bearkats

Sam Houston State's Tristan Ikpe scores a basked against Texas forward Greg Brown in the second half of Wednesday night's 79-63 Longhorns win. Eleventh-ranked Texas improved to 6-1.

Donovan Williams knows pain. How to play through it, how to manage it, how to ignore it and how to live with it. He’s done it for years. 

The Houston native struggled with knee issues as a high school junior and senior. Last year as a Texas freshman, he played 26 games and kept going and going until his left knee finally gave out on Feb. 29 at Texas Tech.

“Surgery was March 11,” Williams said. “I have four screws into my kneecap.”

Is that all? “Yeah, that’s it,” he said.

If you saw Williams’ wrought face in Lubbock, you’d know how impressive it was to see him racing around the Erwin Center on Wednesday. He was merely a role player in Texas’ 79-63 win over Sam Houston State, but it served noticed that this once-explosive athlete is inching closer and closer back to full strength.

The 11th-ranked Longhorns (6-1) rolled up a 27-point lead and spent the last 10 minutes sleepwalking. But against a team like the Bearkats (3-5), it’s mostly fodder for Thursday’s film session. 

It will give Texas coach Shaka Smart plenty to focus on before Sunday’s game against Oklahoma State. That now serves as UT’s Big 12 opener after last Sunday’s game against Baylor was postponed because of COVID-19 protocols.

“The best teams, they know how to finish. They know how to step on the other team’s throat,” Smart said. “There’ll be a lot of tape watched from that last 10-11 minutes.”

Williams, though, might enjoy film study. 

Last season, Williams earned the nickname “The Microwave” for his ability to heat things up. Guard Matt Coleman III always said it was uncanny how whenever Williams came onto the floor, something good usually happened. 

Texas guard Donovan Williams scores over Sam Houston State's Jarren Cook during the second half of Wednesday night's game at the Erwin Center.

Williams came into the game against Sam Houston State and immediately tried to score on a driving layup, drawing a foul in the process. He then hit a smooth baseline jumper. 

There were some rough moments, like when he turned it over in the open floor and drew an offensive foul for an aggressive elbow. But with 11:17 remaining, Williams made a nice cut off the baseline and hit a smooth mid-range jumper while drawing a foul. The three-point play gave Texas a 65-38 lead. 

“I think going back to March, even going back into last season, you know, I just wasn’t 100%,” Williams said. “But like coach says, just give 100% of what I’ve got every time.”

Oddly enough, the pandemic helped Williams. Since everybody was stuck at home, there wasn’t as much pressure for him to rush back after surgery. He became an online student of the game, watching Kobe Bryant videos and devouring anything possible on YouTube. 

“I wanted to grow my IQ so that on the off chance that I don’t get back to how athletic I was in the past, I can still make a contribution,” Williams said. “I can still be that same player that I want to be. I can still achieve all those goals that I want to achieve.”

Smart said Williams wasn’t given full medical clearance until just before preseason practice began. Williams was forced to wear a brace and, predictably, hated it. But Williams kept plugging away in practice, trying to heat things up.

“Sometimes you run into players that are just stubborn about wanting to kind of push the envelope and go further than maybe the doctors want them to go at that point,” Smart said. “That was definitely him.”

In his first three appearances this season, Williams averaged about eight minutes. He logged 11 minutes against the Bearkats and was 2-for-4 shooting with three turnovers. 

“Even right now, even if I’m not as athletic and explosive as I want to be,” Williams said, “I can still impact the game just with my mind and just on my ability to read the defense, read the offense and just make plays.”

It’s not like Texas needs Williams to be Superman. Everyone has their role. And the Horns were all playing their part against the Bearkats.

Courtney Ramey, the shooter, tied his career high with five made 3-pointers. He started out 5-for-5 but finished 5-for-7 from long range along with 17 points. Greg Brown, the freshmen phenom, did more phenom things by getting his second career double-double (17 points, 10 rebounds).

Andrew Jones, this team’s spirit, is starting to come back to life; he finished with 13 points. Kai Jones, the highlight machine, had another incredible alley-oop dunk. Brock Cunningham, the energizer, was energizing with three points, four rebounds and several floor burns.

Texas forward Brock Cunningham fouls Sam Houston State's Donte Powers as they fight for a rebound Wednesday night.

Sam Houston State’s Zach Nutall was the only visitor who had a decent night. He finished with 23 points and hit four 3-pointers. But overall, the Bearkats were outgunned athletically.

Brown’s questionable technical foul with 9:06 remaining messed with Texas’ mojo, and the Horns turned sluggish down the stretch. Most of it was garbage time anyway.

Williams will take any kind of minutes he can get — either the garbage ones or those in the crunch. 

“I think the biggest thing is his confidence and just believing in himself, because we believe in him,” Ramey said. “It was just good tonight to see him be himself. We just want to let him grow.”

Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com or @BDavisAAS.