Kenny Williams scored more points than he ever had in a college game, and made more 3-pointers than he ever had, and made more shots in fewer minutes than ever, too. It was a dizzying, brilliant stretch for Williams during the first nine minutes of North Carolina's 96-72 victory here at Stanford on Monday night.
And yet the number that impressed coach Roy Williams as much as all the others, if not more, was the number one – the number of shots Kenny Williams attempted during the second half. That, to the coach, was an act of basketball selflessness and sacrifice – a player on a streak choosing not to test its limits, and spend his energy elsewhere, as needed.
“Kenny was absolutely sensational,” Williams, the coach, said afterward, “and the best thing about it is he was not selfish for one second in the course of the game. … to be that unselfish and caring about your teammates, that's sensational.”
The Tar Heels (3-0) passed their first road test of the season at Maples Pavilion, and did so with relative ease. They led by double digits throughout the second half. Rarely were they tested after building a double-digit lead in the first half, which they enjoyed in large part because of Williams, the player.
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He scored UNC's first 14 points, and 20 of its first 26 during the first nine minutes and three seconds. By then Williams had already made six 3-pointers, and the fact that he didn't make another shot the rest of the game wasn't any cause for concern. He only attempted one more shot from the field, after all.
To his teammates, and to Roy Williams, that was just Kenny being Kenny: taking his shots as they come, not forcing anything, not being selfish, playing within the offense.
“I've spent two and a half years with him,” said Luke Maye, who arrived at UNC the same time as Kenny Williams, “And I've loved every minute of it. He's so down to earth, he cares so much about the team. It doesn't really matter – second half, he shot one time.
“That's how Kenny is. He doesn't really need a lot of things.”
It'd have been understandable, perhaps even expected, had Williams kept shooting after his fast start. It was a shooting display, after all, that compared favorably to some of the best in school history. Williams' six 3s during those first nine minutes tied him for the second-most 3-pointers in a half in school history.
But then the shooting ceased and Williams went back to doing what he's most known to do: defend, hustle, take a charge. He took one of those in the second half, then rose to his feet in a jubilant display of satisfaction. It was arguably Williams' most impassioned physical outburst, and he seemed more delighted with the charge than his early success from the perimeter.
“I love to take charges,” Williams said. “Because it's a big momentum shift. A team can have all the momentum but if you go take a charge, it just takes it all away from them. So that's why I get so excited about it.”
Williams acknowledged there's another motivational factor there, too: “Coach loves it,” he said.
Indeed, charges can nullify a team's momentum, but Stanford (0-3) never had a chance to build any. Not after what Williams did early, and after what Joel Berry, the senior point guard, did a little bit later. Williams scored all 20 of his points during the first nine minutes or so, while Berry scored all 29 of his during the final 29 ½ minutes.
Berry labored last Wednesday during a 93-81 victory against Bucknell – his first game back after missing UNC's season-opener while recovering from a broken bone in his right hand. He made just one of his 11 attempts from the field then, and Roy Williams cracked a joke on Monday about how Berry's 10-for-19 performance at Stanford now made him “11-for-30 this year.”
“It was a much better night for us because of the two guys sitting up here with me,” Williams said earlier, sitting between Berry and Kenny Williams at a postgame press conference.
Berry, who is likely to be an All-American and ACC Player of the Year candidate this season, had savored these kinds of performances before. His 29 points were two short of his college high – the 31 he scored last year during a dramatic overtime victory at Clemson. For Kenny Williams, meanwhile, this was something new. He’d never scored more than 17 points in college.
His performance on Monday was something for him to appreciate, especially, given his recent history. After suffering a knee injury last January, he missed UNC's final 14 games. He watched from the bench while the Tar Heels went on to win the national championship, and all he could do was cheer. Days after the season ended he had surgery on his right knee, and then came a long, slow rehab process.
Williams only began feeling like his old self a week or two before UNC's first exhibition game, he said not long ago. What he did on Monday night had him feeling better still, even if those first nine minutes put him at a bit of a loss for words.
“When I first went to the bench I told the guys, man, I'm just throwing it up there and it's going in,” Williams said. “At that point, I mean, you hit a couple of shots and the confidence is all there. My confidence is at an all-time high … The basket just seems to get bigger.”
Williams thought back to the work he'd put in while his knee continued to heal. There were the long sessions in the weight room, working back after his surgery, and more late nights in the Smith Center, where he and Maye and others made a habit in the summer of getting some shots up.
All of that, and then came Monday: a release.
“It just shows that the work is paying off, and coming back from the injury and to have that performance, I think it just means a lot to me personally, because I missed a lot of time,” Williams said. “So, yeah, it just means a lot. And honestly, I don't know what to say about it, to be honest with you.”
Roy Williams was there to fill in the gap: “It was fun,” he said, and Kenny Williams nodded, wearing the sort of expression he wore after his third or fourth 3-pointer fell through hours earlier.