It was a Wednesday, the day after North Carolina’s too-close-for-comfort victory against Pittsburgh, and the day after Kenny Williams, the Tar Heels’ sophomore guard, had labored through another difficult night. By then it had been two games since Williams, one of UNC’s best perimeter shooters, had made a 3-pointer.
Williams was in the locker room with his teammates. The whole team was there. Their coach, Roy Williams, was sitting, giving a talk. When it ended Roy Williams stood and turned to Kenny Williams and told him that he needed to see him in his office.
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“Coach is a fun guy, so he makes little jokes every now and then,” Kenny said, smiling, after the Tar Heels’ 83-76 victory against Notre Dame on Sunday. “He made it (sound) really intimidating. ... He just wanted to help me out a little bit.”
UNC’s triumph at the Greensboro Coliseum will be remembered for a lot of things. It will be remembered for the strange circumstances – a water crisis that on Friday and part of Saturday shut down Orange County, Chapel Hill and UNC’s campus – that led the teams here to a different venue. It will be remembered for the spirited atmosphere that awaited, with about 17,000 packing the coliseum on short notice.
It will be remembered for Roy Williams’ rant afterward – both about the “ridiculous” law, known as House Bill 2, that has forced NCAA and ACC events out of this state, and about how he didn’t much care to have given up a home game for a temporary water problem. Williams at one point said that “this one here is the most weird thing I’ve ever been involved in my life.”
And yet, on the court, UNC’s victory was memorable, too, for two reasons, among others. One was that Joel Berry, who shot poorly throughout much of Sunday, made perhaps the game’s most important shot. He released it just inside the 3-point line, and it gave No. 12 UNC (21-4, 9-2 ACC) a bit of breathing room after No. 20 Notre Dame (17-7, 6-5) cut the Tar Heels’ lead to two points with less than four minutes remaining.
The other cause to remember Sunday: Kenny Williams rediscovered his shooting touch.
Perhaps not coincidentally, he found it days after that meeting with Roy Williams, who said he reminded Kenny that he was playing – and playing significant, important minutes – for a reason. Entering Sunday, Kenny Williams had missed 10 of his past 11 3-point attempts.
Long gone was the confidence he built back in November and early December, when he looked like the Tar Heels’ most improved player. During UNC’s first nine games, Williams made 12 3-pointers. He hadn’t made that many 3s, combined, in the games since. At least, that is, until Sunday.
Against Notre Dame, Williams finished with 11 points – the third time he’d scored in double figures in an ACC game. He made three of his four 3-point attempts, and that was the first time since a Dec. 4 victory against Radford that he’d made more than two 3s in a game.
Afterward, Roy Williams described the sit-down with Kenny. Williams, the coach, described it in blunt, dry terms – the kind with which his players are well-acquainted.
“We had a discussion this week, just talking about, ‘play basketball,’ ” Roy Williams said. “... His numbers have been going down. I said, ‘You know I trust in you as coach.’ And he looked at me. I said, ‘Well I must think you’re pretty good because I keep on putting your rear end out there.’
“So why don’t you have confidence.”
Kenny Williams smiled at the memory on Sunday. Earlier this season, he spoke about the confidence shortage he endured last season, during his freshman year. He went long stretches then without playing much and, when he did, he rarely contributed the way he’d hoped.
It took a summer and a promising start to this season to rebuild some of what he’d lost. And then came the relapse, in recent weeks, when his shots starting bouncing awry again. Kenny Williams said on Sunday that it was “good to hear” that Roy Williams “still believes in me.”
What helped Kenny Williams more was that he made his first shot on Sunday. It was a long 3-pointer that gave the Tar Heels an early 9-2 lead less than five minutes into the game. He made his third, and final, 3-pointer about 30 seconds into the second half, and that put the Tar Heels ahead by 11.
The Fighting Irish kept whittling its deficit. With less than four minutes remaining UNC’s lead was only two points wide and that’s when Berry, who hadn’t played especially well on offense, made what was likely the game’s most important shot.
“It was just a ball screen out of one of our secondary plays, and they had a miscommunication – I could hear them yelling, trying to pick me up,” said Berry, who finished with 11 points and was one of six UNC players in double figures. “And they just had a little miscommunication. And sometimes you’re just going to have that, and you have to take advantage of that. And that’s what I did.”
Berry liked the shot well enough. He was happier, though, with what followed: three minutes of intensity on defense. After Notre Dame cut UNC’s lead to two points, the Fighting Irish went about 3½ minutes without scoring. By the time the Irish did again, the game was essentially over, with the Tar Heels leading by seven points in the final seconds.
“I’m just proud,” Berry said of that defensive stretch.
“We were flying around, boxing out, and that’s all you can ask for,” he said. “I mean, you really can’t control a shot, but you can control trying to take the offense out of what they want to do, and I think we did a good job of that.”
And so it ended – a victory in which Kenny Williams found his confidence early and Berry found his touch late. The Tar Heels discovered their defensive urgency, too, just in time in what will ultimately be remembered for the strange confluence of events that led UNC and Notre Dame to Greensboro in the first place.