Nazir Williams leads Cornell men’s basketball to Ivy League-opening win over Columbia

Junior guard Nazir Williams led Cornell to a 91-79 win over Columbia Tuesday night. (Cornell Athletics)

ITHACA, N.Y. – For the first time this season, Brian Earl finally gave junior guard Nazir Williams the nod to start. After an offseason knee procedure, he had been coming off bench and playing fewer minutes than last year.

Naturally, he delivered.

Williams dropped a season-best 24 points off 8-for-12 shooting, propelling the Cornell men to a 91-79 Ivy League-opening win over Columbia. He played 32 minutes, the most he’s played all season.

“This has really just been building the last few weeks. I didn’t really have much of an offseason,” Williams said after the game. “Every day, I’m getting stronger. I’m still not where I want to be, still a little bit out of shape. I can do a lot more things better, so I’m just working toward that.”

The Nyack, N.Y. native averaged 12.9 points last season as a sophomore, coming in second on the 17-11 squad that lost to Yale in the Ivy League semifinals. He underwent a left knee procedure in the offseason that put him behind heading into his third year on East Hill.

Williams showed glimpses. He scored 15 points against Fordham early in the second as Cornell stole a buy game from the Rams in Rose Hill Gymnasium. He had 15 against George Mason a few nights later and another 15 against Monmouth at the end of the month.

But then came the struggles.

In a loss to Syracuse, Williams played a season-low 16 minutes and scored just five points. Cornell had a two-week gap until its next game for finals, but something clicked in that span. Though scored just two points and went 0-for-5 from the field against Siena, that was a turning point.

“After Syracuse, I feel like I played really bad,” Williams explained. “It didn’t really affect my confidence; it just made me work harder. If I’m struggling, the only thing that I know how to do is work harder. Even that Siena game – I only had two points, but the way I felt on the court was way different than how I felt in every game prior.

“Once that game happened, I knew things were turning around for me.”

Williams scored in double figures as the Big Red came from behind to beat Robert Morris and as they took Colgate wire-to-wire. In last week’s loss to nationally ranked Baylor, Williams had 17 points – 14 of which came in the first half.

On Tuesday evening, Williams replicated that – scoring another 14 first-half points. He added 10 more in the second half and never missed from the free throw line (6-for-6) throughout the night.

“He’s been through a lot with surgery, and I think he’s healthy now,” Earl said after the game. “It took a while to get confidence back, and injuries can do that to you. He’s just for me a calming presence as we play at a pace and in a way that can really stress you out. When I see him, it gives my heart rate a little bit of a break.

“He’s smart, he knows how to play, he takes good shots and I think he managed the end of the game really well.”

Is Williams feeling good?

“No, no,” he joked. “During the game, for sure. Definitely got to go get an ice bath and just heal up.”

Shorthanded Columbia didn’t go away easy

In a game in which Columbia needed to match the top scoring offense in the league, the Lions were without their leading scorer Geronimo Rubio De La Rosa with a what a university spokesperson considered a day-to-day injury.

So, that put a lot of pressure on the Lions to perform.

Early on, Columbia was unfazed. Cornell did normal Cornell things, scoring 48 points over the first 20 minutes behind 58% shooting and eight three-pointers. Columbia clung on to trail by just four at the half behind 57% shooting itself.

“We have 48 points, which I think was enough. It was a little more on the defensive side that I thought we had to make some adjustments for Columbia,” Earl said. “We didn’t sit back as much [in the second half]. If they missed a shot, we sort of made things a little more difficult on them.”

But after sophomore guard Avery Brown came up with a steal and threw down a thunderous transition dunk to make it 71-68 Cornell with 5:40 remaining, the Big Red shifted the momentum for good. Senior forward Keller Boothby knocked down triples in consecutive possessions, giving Cornell what was its largest lead of the game.

The Lions never got closer than six over the final 4:54.

“We play in a way that there’s going to be volatility,” Earl explained. “They make a breakaway dunk and our guys are expected to shoot the open shot, and [Boothby] did that. He knows how to do it. We relied on him for a lot of years, so he stepped up this game. Some games, it’ll be somebody else, but that helped a lot.”

Senior forward Sean Hansen complemented Williams with 14 points, making five of his nine attempts and leading the team with six rebounds. Isaiah Gray and Cooper Noard each had 11 – Gray missing just once from the field in four tries and Noard knocking down a trio of treys in the opening half.

Brown led Columbia with 17 points in place of the injured Rubio De La Rosa and sophomore guard Kenny Noland scored 11. Junior guard Jaden Cooper and sophomore forward Zine Eddine Bedri each had 10.

“Columbia is very good. They’re missing their best player and they gave us fits, which we were expecting,” Earl said of the 9-5 visitors from Morningside Heights. “Columbia is gonna be in the thick of everything, so it’s great to get a win … there’s so many good teams, so many good coaches [in the Ivy]. So it’s on to the next one.”

Cornell gets Penn at home on Monday as Columbia will travel to Yale.