Joey Piatt (@joey_piatt)
When Khari Williams arrived at Millersville’s Lancaster campus, he wasted no time in making his presence felt.
In his Marauder debut, Williams, who’d transferred in from Clarion, scored 23 points against a Fairmont State program that went on to reach the NCAA Tournament. That performance set the stage for a stat sheet-stuffing season, one in which he led the team in total points scored and tied for the team lead in points per game with 14.6. He was just one of two players on coach Casey Stitzel’s Marauders team to start all 30 games in a season that ended with a trip to the PSAC Quarterfinals. In that matchup, a loss to Shippensburg, Williams reached 1,000 career points in his college career.
It was a great moment for the Norristown, Pa. native, whose basketball journey and path to Millersville was anything but linear.
Khari Williams (above, in 2017) became a key member of the Archbishop Carroll rotation as a senior. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Where it all started
Williams began his high school basketball career in his hometown at Norristown Area High School. In a two-year stint with the Eagles, Williams went through many highs and lows, including one instance where he went from having a spot in the varsity starting lineup to being sent back down to the junior varsity team.
After his two up-and-down years at Norristown, Williams transferred to Archbishop Carroll in the Philadelphia Catholic League. There, he played under coach Paul Romanczuk, who recognized the potential Williams had to continue playing at the next level.
"It was almost like he had a game that was even more tailor-made for the college level,” Romanczuk said. “He's a taller guard who could score the basketball, and [he] got more and more confident as a shooter and scorer."
Despite Williams’ raw talent, his success didn’t come overnight. He began his junior year in an eighth-man role that limited his playing time and scoring opportunities. In Carroll’s 13 PCL league games, Williams scored only 20 points. But Romanczuk started to see the signs that Williams could make the leap entering his senior season.
“He might have been disappointed at times that he wasn't playing a lot towards the beginning of his junior year,” Romanczuk said. “But I could see that improvement towards the end.”
After three seasons of struggling to build his confidence and to translate his raw talent into on-court results, Williams made the jump his senior year, when he finally earned a consistent starting role. In his 13 league games with Romanczuk’s Patriots, Williams averaged 9.2 ppg on a squad that featured Colin Daly (West Chester/Temple), Justin Anderson (Bloomsburg) and Jesse McPherson (Lock Haven), plus future Michigan State guard A.J. Hoggard as a freshman.
It hadn’t been easy, but Khari Williams had finally put together a complete season and had started to play up to his potential. But perhaps more importantly for the young guard, he had started to develop his confidence and find his style of play. That style turned out to be one that drew from his roots in the City of Brotherly Love.
“When I went to the Catholic League, I learned how to be tough, how to play real basketball,” Williams said. “I would call [my game] Philly tough. Philly has a tough brand of basketball, and I’m not from the actual city, but I’m definitely from the area, and I take that and play with pride every time I’m on the court.”
When things started to click
After graduating from Carroll, Williams took his talents to the PSAC West to play for the Clarion Golden Eagles. Unlike at Norristown and Carroll, where it took Williams some time to acclimate, the Philadelphia native wasted no time in making a name for himself in the PSAC.
In his first season, Williams started all but four games for the Golden Eagles, and in 10 of those games, he scored in the double-digits. The following year, the then sophomore used that first-year success as the springboard to becoming Clarion’s leading scorer with 13.6 points per game. He eclipsed the 20-point mark five times and was just shy of shooting 40% from beyond the arc (0.398). Williams had also started to become more well-rounded as a player, collecting 5.1 rebounds a game.
Despite Williams’ success at Clarion, something was missing. The Golden Eagles were 9-45 in his two seasons with the team and had mustered only four PSAC wins during that time. In addition, Clarion’s campus was over four hours away from Williams’ Norristown home. With these factors at play, Williams decided to enter the transfer portal following his sophomore year.
While he was unsure of where he would end up, Stitzel knew the perfect place for someone he recognized as one of the PSAC’s rising stars.
“We played Clarion twice, Khari’s freshman year and Khari’s sophomore year,” Stitzel said. “We beat them pretty badly, but Khari had two really good games...When we saw him in the portal, we had a full scholarship available, and we needed a scoring wing.”
(Photo courtesy Millersville Athletics)
A perfect fit
Stitzel, the former head coach at Delaware Valley University, has Philly roots himself. The Marauders' coach attended Lansdale Catholic High School, another member of the PCL. After four-years with the Crusaders, Stitzel made the short trip to Chester, Pa. to play college ball for Widener. Even after his graduation from Widener, Stitzel remained in Philadelphia, starting his coaching career as an assistant at Philadelphia University.
Growing up in Philadelphia helped Stitzel appreciate Williams’ style and the basketball toughness that he knew could have a tremendous impact on his Millersville program.
“Obviously me being a Philly guy, formerly at Del Val, I knew Khari, [and] I saw him in high school,” Stitzel said “ What Khari brings - that was much needed to our program - he brings a lot of toughness. He’s a tough kid, he was well coached in high school…[and] playing in the Philadelphia Catholic League, he’s not intimidated by a big moment, he’s not intimidated when he’s going against a good player.”
Stitzel’s evaluation of Williams proved correct during the 2019-2020 season, when the 6-foot-4 guard started scoring all over opposing PSAC defenses.
Williams’ impact wasn’t just limited to offense either. Stitzel is a defensive-minded coach, and every player, regardless of their offensive prowess, must be able to make an impact on both sides of the ball. The Clarion transfer had no problem checking that box as a junior, when he recorded 32 steals.
Entering the 2020-2021 season, it looked like Williams would repeat his breakout junior season and contend for All-PSAC honors. But COVID-19 sidelined PSAC basketball last year, forcing Williams to wait nearly 18 months to give his encore performance.
After sitting out the COVID year, Williams entered this year as a redshirt senior leader on a Marauders team that boasts eight upperclassmen. If there was any rust from not playing games for a year, Williams didn’t show it in the Marauders’ season-opener against Frostburg State, when he scored 21 points and converted nine of his 11 free throw attempts.
Williams (above) surpassed the 1,000-point mark late in the 2019-20 season. (Photo courtesy Millersville Athletics)
In total, he averaged 15 points per game in Millersville’s first three contests, all of which were a part of the inaugural Ron Wilson Classic at Pucillo Gymnasium. When the Marauders took a Saturday afternoon trip to Philadelphia to face a winless USciences team playing its final season as a program, it looked like Williams would do more of the same.
Instead, the Marauders’ star got into foul trouble early, forcing him to play a different role. Luckily for Stitzel’s team, Williams had no problem adapting to the circumstances.
“It was easy,” Williams said. “I’m a winner; I’m a team player. So, as soon as I got in foul trouble, I knew my job was to bring the energy off the bench and be ready to make a winning play.”
For most of Williams’ collegiate career, the shots have fallen. On Saturday at Bobby Morgan Arena, that wasn’t the case, with Williams shooting 1-5 from the floor and missing all three of his three-point attempts.
A shooting performance like that might have rattled some players, but for Williams, who spent much of his high school career working to build confidence, the effect was negligible: he would be ready if he needed to make a play.
“I wasn’t hitting much, and I wasn’t getting as many looks, but the whole entire game, the final seconds, I’m like ‘I’m going to make a game-winning play...I was confident, I was confident in my team winning, and I was confident that I was going to step up when I needed to step up.”
Williams did step up for Millersville, sinking a pair of late free throws to extend what was a slim Marauder lead. Those free throws proved crucial in deciding the five-point contest.
They also showcased the grit and determination that have helped Williams to play college basketball at a high level. His “Philly tough” style has been instrumental in his success and will also be a major factor in the Marauders’ goals this season; through four games, he’s averaging 12.5 points and 3.3 rebounds per game, with a team-high eight steals.
“We’re looking to win it all,” Williams said. “We’ve got high standards, high hopes for this whole entire season. Nothing less, championship or bust.”
At 4-0 entering the Thanksgiving break, the Marauders look positioned to have a chance to do just that. If they do reach their goals of a PSAC title and a trip to the NCAA Tournament, it will likely be with lots of help from Khari Williams, who is grateful for every second he gets to spend competing alongside his teammates.
“I just know that this is an opportunity that someone anywhere in the world would kill for: to be a college student-athlete,” Williams said. “So I just take that, and every day I wake up and I’m ready to get better.”