Guarding Minot State University's E.J. Williams was challenging enough last season.
Add in the NCAA's new hand-checking rules that allow for less contact on a ballhandler, and the shifty, explosive senior can be a downright nightmare to defend.
Williams proved that Friday night, hitting 11 of 12 foul shots and scoring a game-high 24 points as the Beavers defeated South Dakota Mines 63-57 at the MSU Dome in the regular-season opener for both teams.
Minot State University senior guard E.J. Williams prepares to drive against South Dakota Mines sophomore Eric Seaberry on Friday at the MSU Dome.
"If he just gets downhill with the basketball, he's strong with the ball, it's tough to take it from him and it's tough to stop him because he is quick and strong," MSU coach Matt Murken said. "It's going to be a chance for him to be really successful because he's a great foul shooter."
Williams scored the Beavers' last eight points. The 6-footer from Raleigh, N.C., drilled a pull-up jumper with 1 minute, 33 seconds remaining, then hit all six of his free-throw attempts to ice the game.
"He's a handful with the old rules," Mines coach Jason Henry said. "He's gonna be a tough matchup for everybody. He's a very good player."
Murken said he'd like to see Williams cut down on his eight turnovers, but added that Williams and junior wings Adam Randall and Thomas Korf played winning basketball in crunch time. After starting the game 1-for-5 from 3-point range, Korf didn't hesitate and drilled his next attempt to put MSU on top 55-49 with 2:52 remaining.
Hardrockers freshman Erron Collins answered with a 3, but Williams took over from there.
"Down the stretch (Williams) played the way we needed him to for us to win, and down the stretch Thomas Korf did and Adam Randall did as well," Murken said. "We need those three guys to be experienced returners that know what I expect and make game-winning plays. They did it enough tonight to win."
MSU (1-0) led 32-26 at intermission, and the teams combined for just six points in the first seven minutes of the second half.
The Beavers eventually went on an 11-2 run to open a double-digit lead, but Mines roared back with seven points from junior Calvin Thomas in an 81-second span.
The Hardrockers (0-1) never led in the second half, but pulled within one at 47-46 with 5:40 to play.
Henry said MSU's advantages in made free throws (25-17) and rebounds (47-26) were too much to overcome.
"We give up 12 offensive boards and four of them are in the last three minutes," said Henry, a Minot native who was one of four finalists to coach at MSU before the Beavers hired Murken in 2012.
"We're right there. We didn't turn it over a ton and we did a lot of good things, but anytime you're on the road and you give up that many foul shots and offensive rebounds, you're not gonna win many games."
Senior forward Chris East led the Beavers' strong rebounding effort with a game-high 11. Lazar Boskovic and Samuel Johnson chipped in seven apiece.
"It was one of our goals coming in to beat 'em up on the glass," Murken said. "If we don't get 'em by 21 on the glass, it's not a game that we win."
Williams hopes the free-throw advantage is a sign of things to come. The Beavers possess a team suited for attacking the basket from the perimeter.
"With the new rule and how the NCAA's calling it this year, that's a big advantage because we're gonna be smaller than people in the NSIC," Williams said. "We're going to have to use our quickness and athleticism to get to the free-throw line, where we can shoot a high percentage."
MSU hosts NAIA opponent Dickinson State at 7 p.m. Tuesday. The Beavers beat the Blue Hawks 79-70 in an exhibition in Dickinson on Oct. 30.
Daniel Allar covers Minot State University athletics.
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