Kenny Williams was in limbo for North Carolina’s 2017 NCAA championship run – part of it and yet not part of it, on the bench cheering with a torn-up knee when he wanted to be on the court playing.
So while North Carolina’s 84-66 win over Lipscomb Friday afternoon at the Spectrum Center was fairly routine as far as first-round NCAA tournament wins go, for Williams it was anything but.
“To be able to make an impact on this stage – a stage you watched your whole life, dreaming of getting to play on – it’s big for me and big for the team also,” Williams said after he led the Tar Heels with 18 points.
Williams took five 3-pointers in the game, making four. He also threw in one shot that was way outside his comfort zone.
“Today he made a left-hand floater,” Theo Pinson marveled of Williams.
“That was a bad shot,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams interrupted. And, three more times in a news conference, the coach would interject with the same phrase, calling Kenny Williams’ lefty floater a “bad shot” – mostly because a bounce pass to a teammate would have given the Tar Heels an easy layup.
“But I clapped like you did when it went in,” Pinson teased his coach.
A lot of people were clapping for Kenny Williams Wednesday afternoon against Lipscomb. For a junior who has been around for two deep tournament runs already, Williams barely has any March Madness experience. He was playing only four minutes a game as a freshman when the 2016 Tar Heels lost in the national final - he made only one 3-pointer in 13 attempts that season - and then he missed all six NCAA tournament games last year when the Tar Heels went all the way.
“I was excited all week to come play,” Williams said of the Tar Heels’ weekend in Charlotte. “My first game playing heavy minutes in the NCAA tournament! This is what you look forward to growing up.”
Williams is what some basketball junkies refer to as a “3-and-D” guy. He’s a starter because he shoots the 3-pointer well – he’s now at 40.8 percent for the season – and because Roy Williams believes in his defense.
“I think he’s one of the five best defensive players in our league,” Roy Williams said. “He led our team in charges (drawn – Williams has 34).”
Williams will have another difficult assignment Sunday, when the Tar Heels face a Texas A&M team with far more athletes than Lipscomb had. But he has been playing particularly well for the past month, scoring in double figures for the past six games in a row. It has been a far cry from last season, when by this time of year he was a spectator.
“It was rough,” Kenny Williams said. “Once we got rolling in the postseason, I got caught up in what was happening rather than saying, ‘My knee’s blown. I can’t play.’ I enjoyed the guys’ success. ...But deep down, I wished I was out there. Not even deep down. On the surface, actually.”
Now Williams’ surface temperature is boiling hot, and the Tar Heels can only hope it stays that way. With the other offensive threats on the team, it’s a given Williams will get a handful of wide-open 3-pointers in every game. Sometime in this postseason, whether he makes or misses one of those will quite likely help determine the outcome of a North Carolina game.
“I think it’s all coming together for me,” Williams said.
Maybe. Friday was only one game, and it was against a No.15 seed. But for a player who only sat and watched last March, it was nice to see Williams stand up and be counted.