CHAPEL HILL — There’s something about Stanford that brings out the best in Kenny Williams. And the Cardinal couldn’t have stopped by the Smith Center at a better time for North Carolina’s senior guard.
After going scoreless in the first two games this season, missing all 10 of his field-goal attempts, Williams finally broke through for 12 points on 4-of-6 shooting Monday to lead the Tar Heels to a 90-72 victory in their 2018-19 home opener.
It was a breakthrough performance that came at the expense of the same Stanford team against which Williams set his career high of 20 points just eight days short of one year ago.
“I knew I would hit some shots this game. I wasn’t worried about it at all,” Williams said. “I guess they get the short end of the stick when it comes to me making shots.”
Williams, who averaged 11.4 points and shot 40 percent from 3-point range last season, got off the schneid early against the Cardinal by taking the ball to the basket and scoring on a layup for the game’s first points.
Two possessions later, he coaxed down his first 3-pointer to get UNC off and running. It took just eight minutes for the Tar Heels (3-0) to open up a double-digit lead and not long after that to extend it into a knockout punch.
Although Williams remained confident through his early shooting slump and continued to play well in other aspects of the game — especially on defense — he said it was a relief to finally see the ball go through the basket.
Coach Roy Williams joked with him before the game that he wanted to see his namesake “make a jump shot before I die.”
Assistant Steve Robinson was a little more subtle, splicing in some clips of Kenny Williams’ big game at Stanford last year into the pregame scouting tape the team watched in preparation for Monday’s rematch.
“That was a little mental thing for me,” Kenny Williams said. “He did it so I could see the ball go through.”
Visibly frustrated on Friday night at Elon, especially when the one shot he did make was waved off because of a whistle, the senior guard settled down and began playing more fluidly once he finally did see one go through the basket in real time.
“The three he made in the second half, that was the old Kenny,” Roy Williams said. “He just knew he was going to knock it in. I like that part of it.”
That was about the only thing the Hall of Fame coach liked about his team’s performance, though.
Because after playing a strong first half in which it shot 60 percent from the floor, outrebounded Stanford 24-11 and built a 52-26 lead, UNC took its foot off the accelerator during the final 20 minutes.
Not only did the Cardinal (2-1) outscore the Tar Heels 46-38 in the second half, it outscored UNC on second-chance points and went to the free-throw line 15 times — leading coach Williams to proclaim that “if we want to be really good like we say, we’ve got to have a lot more pride defensively. We didn’t have much pride defensively.”
According to senior forward Luke Maye, who finished with 16 points and a team-leading eight rebounds, the Tar Heels may have started feeling too good about themselves after their early success against the visitors from the Pac-12.
“We played well defensively the first two games,” Maye said of road wins against Wofford and Elon. “We kind of got up a little bit and let down on some of our technique and principles. And that bit us a little bit.”
Like Kenny Williams’ shooting touch, senior forward Cameron Johnson said he’s confident his team’s defensive intensity will come back sooner rather than later.
“We’ve got to improve on that,” Johnson, the game’s leading scorer with 17 points, said of UNC’s defense. “We can’t let that happen. It’s on us as seniors to get everybody going and not let that happen.”