There was a time not too long ago when the sight of Kenny Williams making one 3-pointer, any 3-pointer, would have elicited a wild celebration on the North Carolina bench. Roy Williams, the Tar Heels coach, remembered that time on Sunday, after his team’s 95-50 victory against Radford.
It was an easy win, a decisive win – the kind of victory that was expected against the over-matched Highlanders who, according to kenpom.com, are the least formidable team on UNC’s schedule. And yet it was also a victory that, even considering its ease, illustrated how far Kenny Williams has progressed in a little more than eight months.
Last March in the ACC tournament Williams, then a freshman who arrived in college with a reputation for his shooting, made his lone 3-pointer of his long, frustrating freshman season. It came late in the first half of a victory against Pittsburgh, one lone shot that somehow seemed bigger, more important, than the points it represented.
“You’d have thought it was a shot to win a national championship,” Roy Williams said on Sunday, “the way our bench reacted that night.”
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Since the start of this season, the sight of Kenny Williams’ 3-pointers have become more familiar. They no longer inspire the kind of reaction that awaited after he made his first. And yet what he did during the first five minutes on Sunday, against Radford, was something else, too.
After scoring on a layup on UNC’s second possession, he made his first 3-pointer less than two minutes into the game. And so began a torrid three-minute stretch in which Williams made three more 3s, all the while approaching, and then eclipsing, his previous high of 11 points in a college game.
Radford (3-5), of the Big South Conference, tried to do what it could to slow the onslaught. Its coach, Mike Jones, called a timeout after Williams made his second 3. He jogged back to the UNC bench holding up his follow-through, posing, and the brief break during the timeout didn’t seem to bother him.
After the timeout came two more Williams 3s. His fourth gave him 14 points, a new high, and it gave the Tar Heels an 18-4 lead that never grew any smaller. Afterward Williams attributed the early barrage to his new-found confidence, which now should only grow.
When he met with Roy Williams at the end of last season, Kenny Williams received a list of the parts of his game that needed the most work. Defensive improvement was at the top of that list, he said on Sunday. So, too, was improving his speed, his ability to keep up in the Tar Heels’ up-tempo offense.
And yet Kenny Williams’ most important work since the end of last season and the start of this one might have been all in his mind. What he went through last year – not playing all that much, and not making shots when he did play – had been “a little detrimental” to his mental state, Williams said.
“Going into the season, I just tried to change my mindset,” he said on Sunday. “And just keep telling myself and keep pushing the idea of having the utmost confidence in yourself, and your game.”
By UNC’s third game, Williams already had made his second 3-pointer – one more than he’d made all of last season. His first game with multiple 3-pointers came in a victory at Hawaii on Nov. 18, when he made two. Four days later, during a 32-point victory against Oklahoma State, Williams made three 3-pointers.
And then came Sunday. He made another 3 during the second half and finished with 19 points, one of seven UNC players who scored at least eight points. Overall, the Tar Heels (8-1) made nine of their 20 3-point attempts, and through nine games they’ve made 38.5 percent of their 3s.
For years Roy Williams has been waiting, hoping for improved perimeter shooting. It’s early but his team is delivering, and is on pace to become UNC’s best 3-point shooting team since the 2008-09 season.
“We see that from everybody,” Isaiah Hicks, the senior forward, said of the improved shooting. “That’s why most of the time I was saying 3-pointers are looking like lay-ups sometimes. Because they’ve all been working on it, and I’m just glad to see Kenny’s confidence really paid off tonight.”
It was, for UNC, the most memorable part of a game that lacked competitiveness. While the first half will be remembered for the show Kenny Williams provided early, the second half will be remembered, at least for now, for the ankle injury that Joel Berry suffered not long after halftime ended. Berry, the junior point guard who is UNC’s leading scorer, left the game then after enduring a sprained ankle.
“And that’s all they’re calling it, that’s all they think it is,” Roy Williams said. “But we will take X-rays to make sure. But I just told them to keep him back in the locker room.”
The Tar Heels, whose fast start came days after they suffered their first loss, a 76-67 defeat at Indiana on Wednesday, didn’t necessarily miss Berry in the second half. By then the result had long been decided, after Kenny Williams’ early shooting display.
This time his teammates didn’t react with such unrestrained jubilation.
“Last year, I think a lot of the guys on the team felt for me,” Williams said. “They were feeling what I felt, they knew I hadn’t made one. So they were waiting just as much as me for a shot to go in. And I think it felt good for them to see it happen, and me also.”
Nine games into a new year, such a sight is becoming the norm.