Being the No. 1 team in college basketball is never easy. Neither is playing on the road against your in-state rival. Tennessee Volunteers forward Grant Williams didn’t care about any of that because he delivered a performance from the free throw line that hasn’t been seen in 60 years.
In a back-and-forth game, one the top-ranked Vols needed a boost to get past the Vanderbilt Commodores on Wednesday night, the 6-foot-8 junior took matters into his own hands by dropping a career-high 43 points to help Tennessee escape, 88-83, in overtime at Memorial Gymnasium in Nashville.
The amazing part isn’t the point total. It’s how he got there. Williams connected on 10 of 15 shots from the floor, which is incredible in its own right, and went 23-for-23 from the free throw line, which is simply absurd. He also added eight rebounds, two assists, a steal, and four blocks in the victory.
Seriously, it’s more incredible than it sounds. Who shoots 23 free throws in a college basketball game? Better yet, who gets that many chances on the road against an SEC foe? And how many players would have the concentration to knock them all down, knowing what’s at stake?
Perhaps Williams had the officials in his pocket all night to get star calls when he was being aggressive. Maybe it was just his time to flex to make program history and show why he was tabbed the Preseason SEC Player of the Year. It could have been a combination of both. Regardless, it was a performance from the ages, including scoring the first 10 points for the Vols in overtime.
Williams’ 23 free throws without a miss is the second-most in NCAA history. Only Oklahoma State’s Arlen Clark going 24-for-24 during a game on March 7, 1959 was better.
Additionally, it was the most free throws made without a miss in SEC history, the second-most free throws made in an SEC game, and the third-most free throws made in a game in SEC history.
After shooting 67 percent from the charity stripe his freshman year and improving to 76 percent as a sophomore, Williams has catapulted his average to nearly 85 percent for the Vols this season. He even went 19-for-19 from the foul line in the second half and overtime.
“It’s something I’ve worked on since the summer and something I knew I needed to improve on,” the Houston, Texas native said after the game. “I knew the last game I missed two, and it frustrates me when I miss those. You don’t get many opportunities like that, and tonight I did. And you have to take advantage of those. You think about it. I miss one, two, three of those, we lose the game.”
Williams’ 43-point performance in the overtime win is the most points a Tennessee player has scored since Allan Houston poured in 43 against LSU in 1990 and was the fifth-most points in a single game in school history.
As long as the Volunteers are ranked No. 1, teams are going to give them their best shot, whether it’s in Knoxville or on the road. And luckily for Tennessee and head coach Rick Barnes, they have a player in Williams to deliver when they need it the most.