After brief injury scare, UNC senior Kenny Williams embraces long-awaited trip to Sweet 16

Kenny Williams understands how the minds of fans work, and so he recognized on Sunday that there were probably a good number of North Carolina supporters out there who had some heart palpitations at the sight of him hopping off of the court, wearing an expression of pain.

It wouldn’t be March and the NCAA tournament, after all, without some kind of injury – or injury scare, even – for a Tar Heels guard: Kendall Marshall in 2012; Ty Lawson in 2009; Kenny Smith going back decades, to 1984.

And now here was Williams – UNC’s best defensive player and, as a senior, one of the heartbeats of a team that has national championship aspirations – all of a sudden coming up limping 15 seconds into the second half. Cue the palpitations back home, from Murphy to Manteo.

“I have gone on the record,” Williams said, smiling, “just saying that fans overreact to the smallest things.”

Except this wasn’t necessarily a small thing, in the moment. Williams recounted the pain and the scare while sitting in front of his locker on Sunday afternoon after UNC’s 81-59 victory here against Washington – a triumph that sends the Tar Heels, a No. 1 seed, to the semifinals of the NCAA tournament’s Midwest region.

Seconds into the second half, he said, he experienced what he first believed to be a cramp in his left leg. Someone asked him afterward to describe the sensation and Williams, not missing a beat, characterized it like so: “Ouch. I mean, it really hurt.”

“I don’t know what the mechanism was or how it happened,” he said, “but I knew I had to come off the court, right then.”

And so he did. Williams went back into the locker room, where a trainer helped him with the tightness in his left hamstring. It was not a significant injury, it turned out, but Williams’ unfortunate history tends to leave people especially concerned when he’s hurting. He figured that fans might be anxious at the sight of him limping off the court. They had company.

“I always get nervous when Kenny goes down,” said Luke Maye, a fellow senior who in 2015 arrived at UNC alongside Williams. “But … he’s just a tough kid. I know if he’s not on the ground there’s a chance that he’ll be fine.”

During a February practice in his sophomore season, Williams suffered a right knee injury that forced him to miss the Tar Heels’ final 14 games. He watched from the bench while his teammates reached the Final Four and eventually won a national championship.

On Sunday, Williams wound up missing nearly seven minutes, and played for most of the final 13 while the Tar Heels increased their lead and decreased their stress amid a relatively easy jaunt into the Sweet 16. After the victory, Williams received some treatment and walked slowly to his locker.

Had his mind flashed back, if only for a moment, to what happened to him two years ago?

“No,” he said with a sense of relief, “because this is my left leg. You know, if it were my right leg, then it’d be something different.”

To his teammates Williams has come to personify toughness, what with what he’s experienced during his time at UNC. The Tar Heels exhibited some of that on Sunday, even during a victory that didn’t often test them.

There was Williams and his hamstring, for one. And also Garrison Brooks, the sophomore forward, and a mouth full of blood. With about 12 minutes remaining in the first half, Brooks took an elbow to the face from Washington’s Noah Dickerson. Officials ruled that Dickerson made “a normal basketball play.”

The collision, though, broke one of Brooks’ teeth and caused him to lose another. Afterward, Williams said, the state of Brooks’ mouth was “not what you want to see.”

“It’s just nasty to look at, honestly,” Williams said.

The Tar Heels found a little bit of nastiness on Sunday, whether it was Brooks playing through the loss of one of his teeth, or Williams coming back into a one-sided game to quell the concerns over his status. Williams, for one, is old enough to remember, years ago, when people questioned the Tar Heels’ grit.

You don’t hear such talk of that these days.

“We’re all tough kids, despite what people want to say,” he said. “A lot of people say it’s the blue that we wear that makes us a little soft. But at the end of the day, we’re a tough group. …

“All the Carolina is soft talk, I think we’ve thrown it out the window, plenty of times.”

Two years ago, when the Tar Heels most recently competed in regional semifinal, Williams’ season was already over. All he could do was watch.

The victory Sunday, then, represented something more to him, for it meant that for the first time he’d enter the NCAA tournament’s second weekend playing a leading role. It’s something he’s been waiting to do for years -- to reach this moment and have the opportunity before him.

“To be able to play, and play this deep this tournament, it does mean a lot,” Williams said. “But at the same time, we’re not done.”

Days of treatment on his hamstring await Williams, he said. So, too, does the kind of stage and moment he’s waited a while to experience.

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