A long college basketball journey ended for Xeryius Williams last week.
The 2015 Wayne High School graduate played 77 games for the Dayton Flyers in three seasons, transferred to the University of Akron, sat out a season and then started all 31 games for the Akron Zips this season. Williams began his career with back-to-back Atlantic 10 Conference regular-season championships and ended it with a Mid-American Conference East Division championship.
One thing Williams had never won was a conference tournament, and Akron had the No. 1 seed heading into the quarterfinals at noon Thursday against Ohio. Everyone knows what happened next.
“We were actually warming up, getting shots up,” Williams said Sunday on the phone from Akron, “and the next thing you know coach (John Groce) brings us in. We run to the locker room.”
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Akron players learned then they would be tested for symptoms related to the Coronavirus, which had resulted in the cancellation of the game, the MAC tournament and every other conference tournament in the country.
Williams said the players had their temperatures taken but everyone was OK. He believes the tests were done because they were playing at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, the home of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the Cavs played the Utah Jazz on March 2. Rudy Gobert, of the Jazz, tested positive for the virus the night before Akron’s game, causing the NBA to indefinitely postpone its season.
Williams watched all the NBA news break Wednesday night and wondered if the MAC might follow suit and cancel its tournament. When it happened, he was more concerned about his friends on other MAC teams.
“Their season was really done at that moment,” Williams said. “We still had hope of getting a March Madness berth because we were the No. 1 seed.”
Groce told the players they would practice on Sunday in preparation for that bid. Of course, later Thursday afternoon, the NCAA cancelled everything. Williams agreed with the decision but said everyone on Akron wanted to play.
“You don’t want to seem like you’re forcing your kids to play,” he said. “I get why the NCAA did it. They didn’t want to be liable for a kid getting sick.”
Williams shared his feelings about the abrupt ending on Instagram on Friday.
“I’m typing this with a heavy heart,” he wrote, “but this has been a longggg and eventful 5 years. I’ll start by thanking God for giving me a second chance. I want to send out all my gratitude to the University of Akron fans. You all welcomed me here with open arms and showed me how great it is to be a Zip. I want to thank my coaching staff for believing in me and making me a part of the Zips family. This is by far the most memorable year of my college career.
“It hurts because my brothers and I have went through so many ups and downs this year. It hurts that we were on our way to leave a legacy and we were not allowed to do that. This is such a weird predicament that we are in and it breaks my heart. The chance to go dancing one last time would have been the perfect close to this final chapter of my college career, but again I just want to send a huge thank you truly from the bottom of my heart. I am beyond grateful! We are your 2019-2020 MAC Champs.”
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Akron finished the season 24-7. It needed three victories to tie the school record for most wins in a season. With three victories in the MAC tournament and one in the NCAA tournament, Akron could have broken the record.
“We could have really did some damage in the NCAA tournament,” Williams said.
This was the third season for Groce, who took over one of the MAC’s best programs when Keith Dambrot left for Duquesne. The Zips struggleed in his first season, finishing 14-18. Williams joined the program after that season and sat on the bench last season but practiced with the team as it finished 17-16.
Akron was picked to finish fifth in the MAC East and won the division by two games.
“Our goal coming into the year was definitely to be a part of a winning team and a winning culture,” Williams said, “seeing as they weren’t able to really have that in Groce’s first two years. In his third year, we were getting things rolling. We were able to get a winning culture established it. We did what we set out to do. We had some goals in the summer: going .500 on the road, winning the MAC championship. It’s tough to say, ‘OK, we accomplished these, but we never really got to see the benefit.’”
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In a statement posted to Twitter, Groce wrote, “After learning Thursday that Team 119’s season was officially over I have felt a range of emotions between disappointed and grateful. Disappointed, yes, that we did not have the opportunity to compete for another championship, but just as disappointed that our team’s journey was over. Our staff truly enjoyed coaching our team. We were a team of people who played and coached for each other NOT just with each other. There is a big difference … which gets us to grateful. It was a real privilege and blessing to be Team 119’s coach.”
Williams finished his career with 848 points. He averaged a career-best 13.9 points in his final season. He ranked third in the MAC with 9.5 rebounds. He was named to the All-MAC third team. He shot 90.8 percent from the free-throw line, 48.0 percent from 2-point range and 29.9 percent from 3-point range.
Williams is on schedule to finish his degree in organizational communications in the spring, though classes have been cancelled through March 29 and and will be held online starting March 30. He wants to coach Esports one day and also create and design video games. However, he’s not done playing basketball.
“What I’m looking for is to play at the highest level possible, the NBA for sure,” he said. “I’ve talked to a lot of agents, and a lot of agents have confidence in me, based on my stats. My career has proven a lot of things.”