BALTIMORE --- R.J. Williams looked to ceiling of Reitz Arena and howled his approval, his belated first shot of his sophomore year zipping through the net Thursday night less than two minutes into Loyola's comfortable 72-58 victory over Marist.
Dylon Cormier was there to celebrate at midcourt, and with that a milestone of sorts was in the books.
Williams, he of the 18-game suspension for a violation of team rules, wasn't about to waste much time leaving an imprint in his shortened season after serving an extended penance.
"I was feeling that I was back and just happy to be on the floor," Williams said later.
Williams was Loyola's starting point guard for all but a game a year ago when the Greyhounds reached the NCAA tournament for the first time in 18 years. His averages (4.0 points and 2.6 assists) were unassuming.
But his impact wasn't, particularly for a team with capable scorers in Cormier, Erik Etherly and Robert Olson but no true tablesetter. It was an obvious hole Loyola coach Jimmy Patsos had no true answer for in the first half of this season.
And so Williams tossed up six points and four assists in 27 minutes as Loyola (13-6, 5-2 Metro Atlantic) shrugged off the defensively deficient Red Foxes (4-14, 1-6). Just like last year, especially throughout the Greyhounds' late surge, Williams offered a welcome element.
"His energy pretty much propelled us into the whole game," Cormier said. "We had a new swagger out there and I liked what I saw."
Cormier knew what to expect. He shared a backcourt with Williams as early as under-10 AAU ball. From one Baltimore product to another, Cormier understood precisely what the Greyhounds were adding midyear with the rugged 5-foot-8, 155-pounder.
It wasn't smooth from the start Thursday. Williams picked up two early fouls, but Patsos stuck with him for five of the final 11 minutes of the first half.
It made for a fine metaphor for Williams' place with the Greyhounds over the last few months. He was always looming, always present, never seen in games.
"We love R.J," Patsos said. "We never left R.J. He practiced the whole time. We never left our family and was always with us and I expected him to play well and he did."
He provided something else, an asset Loyola is certain to treasure over its next dozen-plus games. With Williams back in the fold, Cormier could play off the ball. Anthony Winbush settled into a more natural role, even if it was off the bench.
Then there was the chance to rest, a luxury not often afforded the likes of Cormier, Winbush, Erik Etherly and Robert Olson this season until now. Cormier, who had 19 points in the victory, logged "just" 32 minutes, his second-lowest total in conference play.
Then there's the undeniably functional on-court element. Early in the second half, Williams fired a pinpoint entry pass from the perimeter into Etherly for a dunk. On the next possession, he did the same to set up a Winbush layup.
"It's a great asset to have," Cormier said. "That's what he does. He's a great passer --- Baby Rondo. Nobody else on our team is making that pass, I know that for sure. It's definitely a plus to have him back."
Williams' return fortifies Loyola's offense, which seemed particularly fluid. It wasn't all about the Greyhounds; teams usually don't score 1.29 points per possession without the cooperation of a porous opposing defense.
Nonetheless, there was no mistaking how much Williams savored his season debut, from a quick bounce off the bench during pregame warmups to enjoyment of a victory he contributed to beyond providing a look in practice.
"I just wanted to show everybody I was happy for them to support me," Williams said. "They had my back in the rough times. I just wanted to give back to them."
With more nights like Thursday, the Greyhounds will have few complaints about the impact their new --- and old --- point guard will make.
--- Patrick Stevens