Updated: December 15, 2013 at 2:30 am
Kamryn Williams heard the whispers when he enrolled at Air Force. Few doubted he could play basketball for the Falcons. He had started for two state title teams at Sierra High School.
The whispers were about his academics.
Could he survive the rigor of a demanding military academy?
Williams answered the question by studying three to four hours a night. When his classmates were watching TV, he remained buried in books.
He's done more than survive. He's thrived.
"He's overachieved academically," Air Force coach Dave Pilipovich said in a near shout after Williams and Air Force outlasted UC Riverside, 62-52, at Clune Arena.
After the game, Williams rested his sore right hamstring in an easy chair. He missed eight games sitting down the bench from Pilipovich, waiting to get healthy.
His overachieving has not only been about academics. When Williams left Sierra, college coaches failed to give chase. Williams is not quite tall enough, at 6-foot-4, to play the role of traditional college forward and lacked the shooting touch to thrive as a guard.
Or so coaches thought.
Air Force took a chance. Williams, a junior, will never become a college superstar, but he's a determined, aggressive, wise forward who refuses to back down from opponents.
Take, for example, UC Riverside center Chris Patton, a rumbling Australian. Patton is listed at 6-foot-10, 245 pounds, but I'd put him closer to 280. In the second half, Patton set up camp on the baseline with only Williams between him and two points. It looked as if Patton would feast on his smaller opponent.
Williams had other plans.
"I'm blocking this shot," Williams said to himself as Patton lowered his shoulder and prepared to shoot. "I will block this shot."
Williams was right. He blocked the ball right off Patton's hand.
This is typical Williams behavior. Last season, he looked into the lane against Wyoming and saw a massive mountain of humanity named Leonard Washington. Williams didn't flinch. He challenged Washington, soaring above the rim and emerging the victor after a two-handed slam.
Williams has taken the same defiant, I-can-do-anything attitude into the classroom. Yes, he heard the whispers about his ability to survive at the academy.
"I did hear that," he said. "They didn't believe that I was able to handle the classes up here."
But he had a scheme to succeed. It is the oldest of schemes. And the best.
"I work hard every day," he said. "I may not be the smartest guy here, but my hard work makes up for that. I require that I do homework every night."
Williams has become one of those feel-good stories in college sports. He's a devoted student. He played a key role in Air Force's 8-8 finish in the Mountain West in 2012-2013, a season that included a 13-2 record at Clune Arena.
The success might not continue on the basketball court this season. The Falcons are young and often look lost on the court. On Saturday, Air Force missed 11 of its first 13 shots and still remained tied, 8-8, nine minutes into the game. Mountain West opponents will not be so kind. It could be a long season.
Still, Williams offers hope. He understands the rigors of conference play and keeps warning his young teammates of the perils ahead.
And he could deliver a few more surprises. Twice in the final minutes, Williams found himself open outside the 3-point line. Pilipovich shouted at him to drive to the basket, but Williams had a different, and as it turns out better, idea. He made both of his long-range shots.
As he trotted back on defense, Williams didn't bother with celebration. He knew he would make both shots.
Just as he always knew he belonged at the academy.