William McCormack

Of all eight cities hosting opening rounds of the 2019 NCAA tournament, Hartford and its XL Center may have attracted the largest Yale crowd.

In 2016, after all, the Bulldogs (22–7, 10–4 Ivy) played in Providence’s Dunkin’ Donuts Center, drawing a large Bulldog crowd in their 79–75 defeat of Baylor. But after Yale secured its spot in the NCAA tournament Sunday afternoon, forward Austin Williams ’20 had his heart set on another site. And within minutes of the Elis convening to watch CBS’s Selection Sunday show live, Jacksonville native Williams saw his wish realized.

“I was really hoping for [Jacksonville] for sure, just to get a chance to get home and see my friends and family,” Williams said. “And our closest game has been in Miami and a lot of my family didn’t end up being able to make it with work and stuff, so it’ll be a good chance — and the weather is nice.”

The junior forward, a graduate of the Bolles School in Jacksonville, has only scored 29 points and collected a dozen rebounds this season, but Williams has provided key minutes during certain stretches this season.

Back in November, when the Bulldogs accrued a season-high 40 personal fouls in a double overtime game at Memphis, Williams contributed 17 minutes of solid post play before fouling out himself. Playing at Penn and Princeton to end the regular season, typically one of the Ivy League’s most difficult back-to-backs, head coach James Jones called on Williams for big minutes in both games. The 6-foot-8 forward splashed two triples to narrow the Quakers’ lead at the Palestra, before sparking Yale with four points in the first half at the Tigers’ Jadwin Gymnasium.

“We called Austin’s number, and he proceeded to go in and score a couple of baskets for us,” Jones said of the Princeton game. “It speaks volumes to his character. You don’t know how hard it is to go to practice every day and not play in a game and reap the benefits and sit on the bench and wait for your number to be called. But what you do is you come to practice every day, so when your number is called, you’re ready. You know, Austin has done that for us, and he’s been a tremendous kid.”

Yale practiced at his alma mater, the Bolles School, on Tuesday afternoon. At Bolles, Williams averaged 15 points and 7 rebounds a game, scoring over 1,000 points in his high school career. He led Bolles to a state championship as well, finding success like the Elis’ other Florida native, forward Paul Atkinson ’21.

Atkinson, who lives in West Palm Beach about four and a half hours from Jacksonville, scored 17 points on 80 percent shooting when the Bulldogs played much closer to his home at the American Airlines Arena in Miami.

“I knew it was a possibility, but when it was called, I was really happy for Yale to come back to Florida,” Atkinson said. “It’s really far from where I live, but you know it’s still good. I have a lot of family coming, so it’s still nice to have some people coming.”

Atkinson’s aunt from Atlanta is traveling south to Jacksonville, while most of his family made the trip up from West Palm Beach either Wednesday or Thursday morning. Each player gets four tickets for family and friends this weekend, and although everyone has lots of family traveling for the big game, not every player on the 18-man roster is likely to use all four. Williams hoped to borrow some tickets from teammates not using their allotment.

As he stepped onto the Jacksonville Veteran Memorial Arena hardwood during Yale’s open practice on Wednesday, a line of young Florida fans called out to him. The boys continuously begged him to throw down a dunk as the team progressed through various drills during its shootaround.

The exact role Williams will play Thursday afternoon against the Bayou Bengals is unclear. LSU has several talented big men, and no matter what, he’ll be ready.

“I just try to stay ready whenever Coach needs me with fouls or anything like that honestly, and whenever he needs me, I just try to be ready and bring energy off the bench especially when we might be a little down on energy and going through a little rough patch.”

No. 14 Yale tips off with No. 3 LSU in the schools’ second all-time meeting Thursday at 12:40 p.m. EST.

 

William McCormack | william.mccormack@yale.edu