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MARCH MADNESS / NCAA TOURNAMENT

Duke's Williams Is Ready for a Bruising From the Bruins

East Regional: Standout point guard is expecting to see waves of UCLA defenders.

March 21, 2001|SAM FARMER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PHILADELPHIA — Devil Momma is done. She has sworn off her Web-surfing ways.

"I've given it up for Lent," said Althea Williams, whose Internet handle only hints that she's the mother of Jason Williams, Duke's star sophomore point guard. "I'm off the bulletin boards. Some of the comments would just eat at my stomach."

One message was particularly troubling. In the wake of Williams' 34-point game against Boston College, he was the target of a death threat posted anonymously on a sports Web site. Althea saw it and frantically contacted the Duke police, who traced the message to a student at Baylor in Waco, Texas.

The culprit was arrested Feb. 12 and confessed to a misdemeanor, making a terrorist threat. He called the message a prank, but that was little consolation to Williams and his family.

"It could have come from anywhere, anybody," Althea said. "Things like that give other people ideas. It's important for people to know that the life people think is so glamorous also comes with its worries and fears."

So, as she does before every game, Althea will say a special prayer for her son Thursday before top-seeded Duke plays UCLA in the East Regional semifinals of the NCAA tournament.

The Bruins will say a prayer too, because containing Williams has been too tough a task for most teams. In a second-round game against Missouri, playing on a tender left ankle, he had 31 points and nine assists.

Williams, who has made a school-record 120 three-point baskets this season, can nail shots from all over the floor. He's the only player in the country who ranks among the top 20 in scoring, at 21.1 points, and assists, at 6.3, and he plays at his best in big games. In a dozen games against ranked opponents during the regular season, he averaged 24.4 points and 5.5 assists.

Saturday against Missouri, Williams helped the Blue Devils to a 94-81 victory with 30 points and nine assists.

Although the Bruins are tempted to match senior Earl Watson against Williams and hope for the best, they instead will try to slow Williams by committee. They don't want Watson to be lured into a one-on-one showdown in which he tries to match the Duke star shot for shot, pass for pass. That would play directly into the Blue Devils' hands.

"When you're playing against somebody who gets a lot of recognition, or supposedly is a really big-time player in somebody else's eyes, sometimes you do make it into a one-on-one battle," Williams said. "I know a lot of guys are coming at me strong this year, but I like that. It makes me play even stronger and harder."

UCLA's Billy Knight expects to be matched against Williams from time to time.

"He's the key to their team," Knight said. "Without him, they can't win."

Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said the best thing about Williams is he doesn't act like a star player, even though he's besieged by interview requests and receives crates of fan mail.

"He really respects authority well," Krzyzewski said. "A lot of kids that are real good, they think their value allows them to be not as good people or feel like you have to do things for them. Jason is really part of the team. He tries to make it easy for everybody to deal with him. He's easy to coach, easy to talk to. You don't have to have kid gloves with him at all."

Said Williams, "If the coaching staff sees something I'm doing that's either wrong or hurting the team, and they yell at me, they're probably right. You just have to believe in what the coaches say."

Krzyzewski saw Williams' humility from the start, back when he was recruiting him at St. Joseph's High in Plainfield, N.J. There, Williams was not only the national high school player of the year, but the captain of the chess team. He was steeped in basketball, yes, but he also played soccer and volleyball.

So it comes as no surprise that, instead of laying the groundwork to bolt early for the NBA, he already has announced his intention of staying at Duke to get his degree. Some people who know him well say the positive influence of teammate Shane Battier--nicknamed St. Shane--has rubbed off on him.

But Althea Williams said her son was introspective and careful about his decisions long before he became a great basketball player.

She likes to tell how Jason got in trouble for acting up in second grade and, when he got home, was told to prepare for a spanking.

He went upstairs and pulled on snow boots, gloves, a ski suit, two pairs of sweatpants, a heavy jacket with a hood, and a hockey mask. Finally, he trudged downstairs and announced, "I'm ready."

"I laughed until I cried," his mother said. "I couldn't even spank him."

And she calls herself a Devil Momma?

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