Young gun Williams comes up big when UNC needed it most

With Clemsons defense paying extra attention on stopping red-hot Joel Berry, someone else needed to answer the call when the Tar Heels needed a score in overtime Tuesday. That player turned out to be Kenny Williams

Rob Kinnan—USA Today Sports
Kenny Williams started 22 games for the Tar Heels in 2016-17 before suffering a season-ending knee injury in mid-February

There are only so many minutes to go around in a college basketball game. So it only makes sense that with the imminent return of injured junior Theo Pinson, North Carolina’s projected preseason starter at shooting guard, someone’s playing time in the Tar Heels’ lineup will soon have to be cut. The most likely candidate before Tuesday’s game at Clemson was Kenny Williams. The 6-foot-4 sophomore has started 12 of 16 games this season in place of Pinson and is averaging 6.8 points while shooting 45.5 percent from the floor. But over the past two weeks, a span covering four games, he had fallen into a slump that saw him make just six of 20 field goal attempts (1 of 12 from 3-point range) while scoring a combined total of 15 points. With Pinson set to make his season debut perhaps as early as Saturday’s rivalry clash with NC State, Williams made coach Roy Williams’ upcoming decision a lot more difficult by making several clutch plays Tuesday in UNC’s 89-86 overtime win at Littlejohn Coliseum. The biggest of those plays were a pair of free throws with 17.0 seconds remaining that all but clinched the key road ACC victory. “Seeing those two free throws go down was big for my confidence,” Williams said. “We’ll see where it takes me.” The young shooting guard made only a minimal contribution during the 40 minutes of regulation time as backcourt mate Joel Berry and forward Justin Jackson carried the Tar Heels through the hotly contested if not particularly well-played battle. Berry scored a career-high 31 points, including a stretch in which he hit for 19 of his team’s 23 points. But with Clemson’s defense paying extra attention on stopping him from getting open looks at the basket late in the game, someone else needed to answer the call when the Tar Heels needed a score. That player turned out to be Williams, who after missing a three-pointer on the opening possession of the extra period calmly sank a long two-point jumper when left open again to give UNC an 81-79 lead with 3:17 remaining. “Open shots, let it go,” he said. “It wasn’t the fact that it was overtime and I needed to get extra aggressive. If the shot’s in rhythm and my teammates are looking for me. I usually knock them down.” Free throws are a different story, though. In an almost identical situation late in regulation, teammate Jackson missed the front end of a one-and-one that would have put the game away. And Williams is only a 67 percent shooter from the line. But with the encouragement of his teammates, the young guard confidently made both shots to extend the Tar Heels’ lead to two possessions at 87-83. “I was actually really calm,” Williams said of the decisive situation. “The guys didn’t make a big deal about it. They just came up to me and said ‘knock these down, we believe in you.’ That’s what happened. I believe in myself at the line, so there wasn’t really any nervousness.” Seconds after making his free throws, Williams provided the coup de grace with a breakout layup following a steal by Kennedy Meeks. He finished the game with 11 points, going 4 of 8 from the floor with a 3-pointer. He also had four rebounds and two steals. “He missed one right in front of our bench, but he made the big one,” Roy Williams said. “He made the second basket of overtime after they had taken the two-point lead and came up with some loose balls. He did step up and make the two free throws and made it look like he had been there and done that before.” Because he did, there’s a good chance he’ll continue to get opportunities in those crucial situations even after Pinson returns.