North Carolina

How Kenny Williams’ ‘tremendous energy’ helped UNC beat Duke

After North Carolina’s win over Duke on Thursday, UNC junior guard Kenny Williams burst into a room of reporters with raised fists and a triumphant whoop.

“I’ve got interviews,” he said, beaming, as he plopped into the nearest chair.

He was immediately enveloped by cameras and questions. That’s what happens when you score 20 points and hit six three-pointers in an 82-78 win over your conference rival. Not only did Williams match his career high for total points and three-pointers on Thursday, he tied the UNC record for three-pointers made against Duke, set in 1992 by Hubert Davis, who’s now a UNC assistant coach.

Williams is used to being overlooked. Moments after Thursday’s win, he nearly tripped over tangled cables of a camera that was capturing the interviews of senior guard Joel Berry. But on the court, Williams’ energy was too infectious for him to blend in.

“I think Kenny always plays with tremendous energy,” UNC graduate transfer guard Cameron Johnson said. “Maybe today’s was a little bit higher, but that’s what he’s known for.”

Before Thursday’s game, UNC senior guard Theo Pinson gave Williams a pep talk of sorts.

“Right before the game, (Pinson) said, ‘Kenny, if you hesitate once on the shot I’m punching you in the chest,’” Williams said. “It worked.” 

It took about three minutes into the game against Duke for Williams’ energy to kick in.

No. 21 UNC (18-7, 7-5 ACC) was shooting 0-for-4, trailing No. 9 Duke (19-5, 7-4) 7-2, when a wide-open Williams caught a pass from Berry at the top of the arc and quickly fired the ball for a three. That shot gave North Carolina its first field goal of the game. It also gave Williams his first-ever points against the Blue Devils.

About a minute and a half later, as Duke sophomore forward Jack White tried to shoot a three, Williams bounded above him and slapped the ball out of bounds. He wasn’t slowing down.

Perhaps Williams was trying to show up his teammates for calling him “first-half Kenny” for his tendency to falter in the second half of games. Or maybe it was the extra hours he’s spent in the gym to overcome his recent lackluster shooting. In the five games before Thursday, starting with UNC’s 80-66 win over Georgia Tech on Jan. 20, Williams averaged 6.8 points per game and shot 40 percent.

Or maybe it was Duke. Williams had only played against the Blue Devils once before — in UNC’s 86-78 loss on Feb. 9, 2017. He came away from that game with just two rebounds and a missed shot in 20 minutes of play. He injured his right knee about a week after that game and missed the rest of the season.

Thursday night was Williams’ chance to prove himself. He was no longer tethered to the bench, no longer limited by injuries or inexperience.

“I was just being myself,” Williams said. “In the locker room jumping around before the game, and then on the court. Once my shots started going in, the energy level just picked up in the arena and myself… It’s kind of hard not to get up for this game.”  

On Thursday, Duke was down by 5 points with 21 seconds left in the game. But Williams wasn’t finished. Under Duke’s basket, Blue Devils senior guard Grayson Allen attempted a pass to freshman guard Alex O’Connell. Williams jumped up and grabbed the ball. The play ended with Pinson dunking the ball and sealing the Tar Heels’ win.

As the Smith Center erupted in cheers, Williams turned around, clenched his fists and roared.