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Jan. 15, 2002


You can go home again.

Fourth-year Virginia men’s basketball player Chris Williams, a native of Birmingham, Alabama, did just that as he led his teammates to Birmingham and helped the Cavaliers win their first-ever game in the city with a 77-72 come-from-behind win over Auburn. Williams posted 14 points and pulled down seven boards as Virginia clinched a valuable victory away from University Hall.

Virginia head coach Pete Gillen scheduled the game in Birmingham as a way of honoring Williams.

“I really appreciated it,” said Williams. “It is a real special feeling to play in front of my friends and family.”

In the days preceding the contest, Williams projected there would be “about 20-30 people supporting me” at the game.” An added incentive was that both of Williams’ parents went to Alabama, and a victory over the hated Tigers would be twice as sweet for them.

“People who went to Alabama hate Auburn,” reminisced Williams, recalling advice he got from his parents years ago.

While Williams’ parents have travelled to Charlottesville a number of times to see their son play, a large number of his family and friends had never seen him play in person while he has been at Virginia.

“I’ve kept in touch with a lot of people back home,” said Williams. “”They’ve all said they would be at the game.”

The Cavaliers’ trip to Birmingham afforded many of Chris’ friends the chance to finally see him in action. They would be expecting a lot, after all, as a high school senior they watched him average 17.5 points and 10 boards a game for Minor High School. That season, he led the Tigers of Minor to the state championship in the very building where the Cavaliers would play on Dec. 8–ironicallly, against a team known as the Tigers.

“I’ve played in the Super Bowl Classic there,” stated Williams. “We won the state championship there. It’s a nice arena,” he added of the building that is a scant 30 miles from his home.

The Williams family would have liked it if Chris could have gone to college closer to home, but it wasn’t in the cards during the recruiting process as he went through his senior year. Alabama was an obvious preferred choice of his parents, but the program was undergoing a coaching change at the time and wasn’t concentrating on Williams.

“I wanted to go to a place that was athletically competitive and where I would get a good education,” said Williams.

While Williams had seen the Cavaliers play a couple times on television, he still did not know that much about the school and the program. Former Virginia head coach Jeff Jones and assistant coach Ricky Stokes convinced Williams to take a visit up to Charlottesville, and they sold him on Mr. Jefferson’s University.

“It had a great atmosphere and good people,” said Williams. Murray State was the only school still recruiting him hard, but Williams signed early with Virginia, forcing his parents to look into travel options.

Suddenly, in March of 1998 Jones left Virginia and Pete Gillen was named the head coach. Williams was faced with the prospect of attending Virginia and playing for a head coach with whom he had never met. Gillen and his staff welcomed Williams and fellow recruit Adam Hall with open arms, however, and Williams responded with an outstanding freshman season He was named ACC Rookie of the Week four times that season en route to being named ACC Rookie of the Year. The team honored him as the co-recipient of the Most Valuable Player award for the 1998-99 season.

Williams was one of the most underrated freshman nationally that season, and the degree of uncertainty surrounding the program at the time (there were only six scholarship players on the team that season) was high. Both of these factors might have convinced other players to bolt for the pros, but Williams would have none of that.

“I was focused on staying and getting my degree,” he said.

Williams returned to the Cavaliers in 1999-00 and started in 30 of Virginia’s 31 games that season, which included a first-round game in the NIT. The NIT berth was the Cavalier’s first post-season game since 1997. Williams led the team in scoring (15.5 ppg) and steals (51) and ranked second in rebounding (6.1 rpg).

As a junior, Williams was named a team captain for the 2000-01 season, and he and his teammates took care of business that year as well, as the Cavaliers advanced to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1997. Along the way, Virginia notched significant victories over top-five teams such as Duke and North Carolina. On February 4th, 2001, the Cavaliers were ranked at #6 in the AP poll, Virginia’s highest ranking since the end of the 1982-83 season. As a fourth-year, Williams was named a team captain for the second consecutive season in 2001-02, meaning he would lead the team into his home town as one of the official team leaders.

Although Williams knew the Auburn game would be emotional for him, he tried to approach it as business as usual.

“There won’t be anything different,” stated Williams. “I’ll see my family and friends for a little bit after the game, but first we will be taking care of business like we always do.

“It was exciting seeing all of my friends and family in the stands, but I had to get back to the game.”

The Cavaliers had a tough game to play, and Williams, naturally, was a big part of it. His breakaway dunk at the end of the first half helped the Cavaliers rally from a three-point deficit late in the half to take a three-point lead at the break. Virginia would need that cushion as the Tigers roared back in the second half, taking a five-point lead with just 4:12 to play.

Williams responded by calmly nailing a pair of free throws to pull Virginia within three points. On the next possession he assisted on a three-point jumper by Adam Hall that tied the game. Later, in the final minute of play, with the Cavaliers ahead by two, Williams grabbed a defensive board off a missed Auburn three-point attempt and the Cavaliers held on for the win. Williams won his second consecutive game in the arena, giving his parents not only the win over Auburn but also more importantly a chance to celebrate their son’s new successes with the rest of his hometown and the throngs of friends and family who were in attendance.

“It’s tough playing in front of your family and friends,” Williams said. “They all expect so much of you. But we came out with the victory and that’s all that matters.”

Spoken like a true captain.

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