How UNC’s loss to Louisville, and a message from a senior, helped turn its season around

UNC’s Kenny Williams talks about overcoming the challenges of his first two years

UNC guard Kenny Williams talks about overcoming the challenges of his first two years at Carolina and how that has defined him as a person.
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UNC guard Kenny Williams talks about overcoming the challenges of his first two years at Carolina and how that has defined him as a person.

The day after North Carolina lost at home to Louisville by 21 points, Kenny Williams reached out to his teammates in their group text message, labeled “17 deep” for the size of the roster, and told them to remember the feeling.

It wasn’t a good feeling.

Louisville had handed North Carolina its worst home loss in the Roy Williams era. The players were embarrassed. They had collectively played their worst game of the season, on national television no less. It was disappointing on many levels.

“Disappointed in ourselves,” freshman guard Coby White said.

The Tar Heels fell to 12-4 on the season and one thing had become clear to Kenny Williams and his teammates: They had to make a change.

“What happened was unacceptable,” UNC senior Cam Johnson recalled of Williams’ message. “We all need to be better across the board.”

Williams wanted his teammates to remember the feeling, so they wouldn’t let it happen again. And they haven’t. The Tar Heels have won six consecutive games and 13 of their last 14 since the initial Louisville loss on Jan. 12. They are one of the hottest teams in college basketball.

On Saturday, No. 3 UNC (25-5, 15-2 ACC) will play No. 4 Duke (26-4, 14-3) at home in the final game of the regular season. The winner will earn at least a No. 2 seed in the ACC tournament depending on how Virginia fares against Louisville earlier Saturday, and the result could solidify a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Two months ago, most didn’t think the Tar Heels would be in that position. After the Louisville loss, they had fallen to No. 13 in the AP poll.

The root of the problem was a lack of effort in a practice two days prior, Roy Williams told the media. The energy level was low. Shots were not falling. Players were not executing.

“I think we just went out there kind of nonchalant,” junior guard Seventh Woods said.

The performance in the game was similar to how it had been in practice. The Tar Heels shot 34.5 percent from the floor and allowed Louisville to shoot 51 percent. They also committed 14 turnovers and were outrebounded for only the second time all season. To put it mildly, Louisville looked and played as if they wanted it more. The score, an 83-62 loss, reflected that.

“We just weren’t focused,” Kenny Williams said. “We kind of got what we deserved.”

Williams addresses the media following a 21 point loss to Louisville on Saturday, January 12, 2019 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Williams’ text message to his teammates a day later stuck with them. It served as a reminder that in order to reach their goal of a national championship, the Tar Heels needed to work for it. They needed to be sharper and more focused in practice. The Louisville loss would serve as a daily reminder.

They would remember the feeling.

UNC won its next four games before their rematch at Louisville on Feb. 2.

In that game, the Tar Heels came out sharp, intercepting passes, scoring in transition, and taking care of the basketball. They went into halftime up by 16 points and would eventually go on to beat then 15th-ranked Cardinals 79-69. In all, the Tar Heels beat four ranked opponents since their initial loss to Louisville and lost once to then-No. 4 Virginia.

“We haven’t had any lackluster practices since,” Kenny Williams said.

The Tar Heels have outscored their opponents by 12.6 points per game during that stretch. Even when the Tar Heels have struggled shooting the ball, they’ve found other ways to win.

Against Duke on Feb. 20, the Tar Heels could not hit a 3-pointer, but they crashed the glass, and got out in transition.

Against Florida State a few days later, they shut the Seminoles down.

Since December, North Carolina’s defense has jumped from 30th to 11th nationally, according to Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency statistics, in part by improving their defense on the ball.

“That game — Louisville was so much more intense and had better intentions than we did,” Roy Williams said. “I think it hit us right in the mouth, and perhaps it’s helped us some too.”

Every game since the loss to Louisville hasn’t been perfect. There has been the occasional slip up, like the one against Miami on Feb. 9, where they needed a 3-pointer from Maye to send it to overtime and win 88-85. But the players can draw back on what has worked since Jan. 13 — hard work and an intense focus in practice.

And a feeling they haven’t forgotten.

Jonathan M. Alexander has been covering the North Carolina Tar Heels since May 2018. He previously covered Duke basketball and recruiting in the ACC. He is an alumnus of N.C. Central University.

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