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Williams returns to D.C. roots, but Quakers stumble

11/12/2021, 10:30pm EST
By David Driver

David Driver (@DaytonVaDriver)

FAIRFAX, Virginia – Jelani Williams of the Quakers soared through the air and put his hands near the face of George Mason’s Blake Jones, who wasn’t impaired as he buried a 3-pointer in front of the University of Pennsylvania bench.

A few minutes later, Williams flew through the air to try and defend another long-distance shot. But this time it was another George Mason reserve – Malik Henry – who knocked down a two-point shot in the far corner to give the Patriots a lead of 22-8.

Jelani Williams dribbles a basketball

Jelani Williams (above, in October) played in front of friends and family in Penn's game against George Mason. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

A 6-foot-5 guard, starting guard and Washington, D.C., native Williams was able to play in front of family and friends Friday night as the Quakers had their second game in three days to start the season. With three ACL surgeries since high school and a year lost to COVID, Williams missed his first three college seasons, then played in his first game for the Quakers on Wednesday in a loss at Florida State.

“That was super cool; it was really cool to see. It was huge for me,” Williams (eight points, six rebounds) said of playing in front of family and his high school coach in an 87-66 loss at Mason. “They are friends who have supported me and helped me make my name here [in the Washington area].

“I’m a little sore. It took me about a game and a half to get my feet under me and feel comfortable,” he added. “It is super emotional; it took me about a day after that Florida State game to process all of the emotions that I went through the past five years, almost.”

“It is amazing and wonderful,” said his mother, Alison, sitting in the stands behind the Quakers’ bench early in the second half Friday. “I am so proud; it’s interesting to see him out here.”

Williams’ father, Kyle, and one of his brothers went to Florida for the game earlier this week. On Friday, in addition to his parents and a brother, among those cheering on the Penn senior was Ace Stallings, his former teammate in high school, and Eric Singletary, his former prep coach at Sidwell Friends.

“I did this for him,” Penn head coach Steve Donahue said of the early schedule for Williams. “I want him to grow. How fast can he grow against better competition; I knew this was going to be difficult. He showed flashes in the second half of the player he can be.”

It was a busy night for the Williams’ family as another brother, Elijah, a junior captain for Division III Gettysburg, helped his team win an overtime home game in southeast Pennsylvania.

For the Quakers, it was a frustrating night as they trailed 43-27 at halftime, were down by 20 early in the second half and fell to 0-2 while making 15 turnovers and allowing the hosts to make 12 of 26 3-pointers.

“It has been difficult each possession, things that happen in each game,” said Donahue. “We have to get better execution. I think we have really good talent in there; it is going to take some time to figure it out. Give (Mason) credit, they have really good older players who have played a lot of college basketball. We missed a lot of easy shots at the rim.”

Guard Jordan Dingle had a team-high 20 points but missed 15 of 22 shots from the field.

“I think he felt he had to do a lot more than usual,” Donahue said. “It is really a product of where we are right now after the pandemic.”

“I think teams are trying to take us out of our offense,” Williams said. “That is one of the things we do best – share the ball and cut. We just have to figure out ways to be more creative and get into our offense and limit our turnovers. Once we cut that down and execute better, we will be fine.”

Jonah Charles, who has also dealt with injuries, had 18 points while teammate Dingle added five assists.

George Mason got four 3-pointers from D’Shawn Schwartz, who had 18 points, and reserve Jamal Hartwell II hit four treys and finished with 12 points. Josh Oduro had 20 points and eight boards for the Patriots and guard Xavier Johnson had 12 points and seven assists.

Williams was a four-year player and three-year captain at Sidwell Friends, about 20 miles east of the George Mason campus.

In his first college game, he started and played 19 minutes as the Quakers began the season with an 105-70 loss at Florida State on Wednesday. Williams had a team-high five turners in that game.

Donahue said that sophomore swingman Max Martz “is probably a week away at best” at being able to play for the Quakers.

“That’s a bad one for us too,” Donahue said.

So a team with little college experience that went 613 days between games will certainly have growing pains with the game at Bucknell on tap for Sunday.

“For me, it is (now) about focusing on the season,” Williams said. “We are fine. I told them in the locker room it is a long season. We only have three or four guys who have played college basketball before.”

George Mason was picked to finish eighth in the Atlantic 10 this season while Saint Joseph’s was pegged for 10th and La Salle checked in at 12th in the poll.
The Patriots, under first-year head coach Kim English, opened its season on Tuesday with a win over Stony Brook.

“I was disappointed in the second half on our defense,” Donahue said. “We got beat off the dribble too easy. That is obviously something we have to work on as well.”

Editor’s note: David Driver has covered college basketball in the Washington area for 25 years. He can be reached at and @DaytonVaDriver.

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