Jasper Williams has never had a problem taking shots.
It's just that for most of the season, those shots haven't fallen.
That changed in a hurry on Tuesday afternoon, as Williams, Hampton's junior guard, scored 20 points and was 5-of-7 from 3-point range as the Pirates held off Morgan State, 69-65, in the first round of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament.
"He hasn't been shooting the ball well all year, but it's not from lack of work," HU coach Ed Joyner said. "He's been putting his heart into it. It just hasn't worked for him. It happens sometimes. We keep telling him, 'Keep shooting. Keep shooting.' "
Darrion Pellum, HU's senior guard and a first-team all-MEAC selection after leading the league with 18.1 points per game, had a game-high 23 as the Pirates (11-20) advanced to a meeting with top seed Savannah State (21-10, 14-2 MEAC) on Wednesday at 6 p.m.
With Hampton down 37-35 midway through the second half, Williams hit back-to-back deep 3-pointers to put the Pirates up 41-37 with 11:40 left. Then, after the Bears (9-20) erased a six-point lead and took a 55-54 edge, he hit a step-back three with 2:22 left to put HU up for good at 57-55.
"Jasper's got the cannon," said Pellum, who scored 16 points at the free-throw line. "I always tell him, 'Just let it fly.' He was in a slump a little bit, but he's the type of player that never gets his head down. Regardless, he's going to keep shooting. You're going to have to tell him to stop shooting."
Coming into Tuesday's game, Williams was averaging 4.8 points per game, shooting 25.5 percent (36-of-141) from the floor and 28 percent (30-of-107) from 3-point range. He had scored in double digits just five times, most recently a 14-point performance against Longwood on Dec. 30 that was his previous season high.
"I was frustrated, but you've just got to keep working," said Williams, a transfer who was a combined 42-of-150 in limited minutes in two seasons at Chattanooga. "Stay in the gym and keep working and be ready when your time is called."
Williams, whose 26 minutes came with senior guard Mike Tuitt saddled with four fouls early in the second half, also made a prophet of Joyner. Based on Williams' recent efforts (including two of HU's season-low 13 field goals in a loss to N.C. Central to close the regular season on March 1) and defensive tendencies he saw on Morgan State film, Joyner delivered a message to Williams on Monday.
"I told him, 'You could end up being the key to the first-round game,' " Joyner said. "If I'm lying, I'm dying. Not knowing that Mike would get into foul trouble, I just thought they would chase us certain ways and maybe it would be his turn."
The Pirates, picked to finish second in a preseason league coaches' poll, have struggled all season to replace the 16 points per game lost when Kwame Morgan broke his leg in a summer pickup game. Williams filled that void Wednesday, while senior guard Christopher Tolson added 12 points and 10 rebounds.
HU, which led 26-24 after a strange first half that saw Morgan State shoot just 4-of-32 from the field but 14-of-20 from the free-throw line, was outrebounded 48-35 by the bigger Bears, but Williams' 3-pointer sparked a 10-0 run that put the Pirates up 64-55 with 39 seconds to play.
Pellum went 5-of-6 from the line for the Pirates, who made just 24 of 38 free-throw attempts for the game, during that decisive stretch.
"(Pellum) is going to pretty much get his points," Morgan State coach Todd Bozeman said. "Obviously, we didn't want somebody else to step up, which Jasper Williams did. He stepped up for them and gave them big minutes, particularly in the second half."
Bears senior forward Kevin Thompson had 12 points and 17 rebounds, while Aric Brooks had 18. Morgan State shot 28.6 percent for the game and was 23-of-31 from the free-throw line.
"If a team makes 23 free throws and gets 21 offensive rebounds, you figure you lose the game," Joyner said. "We just told them, 'Keep fighting. Give everything you've got.' "
Williams, for one, listened.
"He came through for us," Joyner said. "I'm happy for him for that, because he has worked. I've been on him, on him, on him about everything, even down to just keeping your focus. It paid off."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times