By Andy Lohman

In tough games, you need your seniors to step up and lead by example

VCU got exactly that from Johnny Williams and Justin Tillman in Tuesday night’s 85-72 win over Appalachian State, with Williams pouring in 18 points and seven assists and Tillman contributing 21 points and six rebounds.

But what stood out for the two Rams seniors was not the fact that they made an impact, but the way in which they did so: the three-point shot.

Williams hit a career-high four 3-pointers on six attempts, and Tillman swished both of his shots from beyond the arc, complimenting a 6-for-9 night from the field overall.

In the three previous seasons, the two had combined for a nine percent 3-point field goal percentage. Tillman had missed all three of his career attempts, while Williams knocked down three out of 30 attempts.

But both put in the work this summer to expand their game, developing into more dynamic players.

“I was in the gym all the time working,” Williams said of his summer. “Ask anybody, late night I was passing up whatever things were going on just to get in the gym, just work on my game.”

“All my work in the summer,” Tillman said. “Working out two to three hours straight until all the GAs [graduate assistants] are tired and don’t want to work out anymore.”

The extra hours paid dividends in a crucial way Tuesday night with ankle injuries sidelining Issac Vann and Malik Crowfield. Crowfield led the Rams with 13 made 3-pointers coming into Tuesday’s contest, shooting at a .419 clip.

Tillman and Williams picked up the slack from downtown, leading VCU to a 10-for-20 mark as a team from three-point range. Williams in particular swung the momentum of the game with his long-range shooting.

In a tightly-contested first half that featured 10 lead changes, the point guard from Richmond hit a three in transition as the game clock ran down to give VCU a 46-45 advantage heading into halftime. In the second half, Williams put the dagger in the Mountaineers with a 3-pointer from the corner with the shot clock nearing zero after a kick-out pass from Xavier Jackson, who started in place of Crowfield, to push the VCU lead to 76-62 with 6:12 to play.

While the win over Appalachian State put the senior duo’s extended game on display, this shooting touch has been developing all season. Tillman is now 6-for-14 (42.8 percent) on the year, while Williams is 7-for-17 (41.2 percent) on the season.

“I looked down at the box score and said ‘4-for-6? That’s ridiculous,’” senior Khris Lane said. “But that’s just a testament to how hard he worked all summer in the offseason wanting to be better, and lead this team, and adding a different dynamic to his game.”

Still, Williams’ four 3-pointers were more than he hit all season. After a less-than-fruitful shooting display in Maui, he leaned back on his work this summer.

“I felt like I got good looks out in Maui but I didn’t knock them down,” Williams said. “So I came back, I kind of got away from it earlier in the season, but I made that adjustment.”

Tillman’s form comes from confidence that he can knock those shots down.

“My first shot this year, the 3-pointer going in, it was unbelievable just seeing it go in for the first time,” Tillman said.

With an uncertain timetable for Crowfield’s return, the Rams are in good hands with their senior leaders. The trademark speed and playmaking of Williams is still there, as is Tillman’s rebounding and soft touch around the rim. But now that each have added the 3-point shot to their game, they look to be dynamic threats for the rest of the season.