Column: "First-half Kenny Williams" is over

Kenny Williams burst through the door of the North Carolina players' lounge and let the emotion pour out from within.

He didn't yell anything in particular; when you beat Duke, it doesn't matter what you say. But he made his presence known after doing so for two full halves on the Smith Center court. A team official ushered him to the locker room, but he waved her off, instead taking a seat near the door as a mass of reporters swarmed the player most thought had disappeared.

For weeks, he had fielded questions about vanishing midway through games. Now, he had answers.

On Thursday, the junior guard tied his career high with 20 points, including eight in the second half, to lead No. 21 UNC (18-7, 7-5 ACC) to an 82-78 win over the visiting No. 9 Blue Devils (19-5, 7-4). He also matched a career best with six threes — tied for the most ever by a Tar Heel against Duke.

He was the same player we've seen all year. This time, he had the numbers to prove it.

"I was just being myself," Williams said. "It's kind of hard not to get up for this game."

 Kenny Williams (24) tied career highs with 20 points and six made threes in Thursday's win over Duke. But he's been capable of this all along. | Photo by Alex Kormann

Kenny Williams (24) tied career highs with 20 points and six made threes in Thursday's win over Duke. But he's been capable of this all along. | Photo by Alex Kormann

After sitting on the bench for much of the past two years, Williams started this season with 15 double-digit scoring outputs in UNC's first 18 games. But it always seemed to come before intermission, a frustration for fans who watched the Tar Heel offense struggle down the stretch of games.

In the past seven games, Williams hadn't shown up in either half — scoring in double digits just twice and combining for six made threes in that stretch, during which the Tar Heels dropped three crucial ACC games.

After UNC's win over Pittsburgh on Saturday, when the junior scored 15 points, Roy Williams said he told his shooting guard "hello" after the game because he hadn't seen him in a couple of weeks. Before Thursday's game, Theo Pinson motivated his teammate with a threat like only he could.

"If you hesitate on any shot," he told him, "I'm gonna call a timeout and I'm gonna punch you in the face."

He didn't have to. Williams wouldn't hesitate for a moment.

On the game's opening tip, Williams dove for the ball before Duke's Trevon Duval wrestled it away. After making UNC's first three of the game, he violently pumped his fist in celebration. Two possessions later, he flew into the corner and swatted 6-foot-7 Jack White's only shot of the game into the stands, only to block Duval a minute later.

Williams was restless in the locker room before the game, and he attacked his pregame routine with a fury. The Blue Devils were hard-pressed to stop him now.

"His energy is contagious," said Cameron Johnson, his teammate and roommate. "(He was) flying all over the court."

 Cameron Johnson (13) combined with Kenny Williams (not pictured) to make all seven of UNC's three-pointers in the first half. | Photo by Alex Kormann

Cameron Johnson (13) combined with Kenny Williams (not pictured) to make all seven of UNC's three-pointers in the first half. | Photo by Alex Kormann

He started the game 4-for-5 from three, scoring 12 of the Tar Heels' first 19 points. By halftime, Williams (four) and Johnson (three) had combined for all seven of UNC's made three-pointers, collectively willing their team into halftime with only a four-point deficit.

"To start, I felt like I couldn't miss," Williams said. "And once I got going, I think that got the rest of the team going."

Finally, the junior was flashing the same scoring acumen that earned him recognition early in the season.

Would he disappear?

Two days earlier, Williams sat on this same court with a handful of reporters surrounding him. He didn't have the same draw as Joel Berry or Theo Pinson or Luke Maye — even Johnson drew a bigger crowd. He was, after all, just a first-half scorer.

"We would mess with him early in the year, call him 'first-half Kenny,'" Johnson said. "Because he'd come out to a crazy start and then (in the) second half, I don't even know what would happen."

It's been a running joke with fans and players, one Williams isn't too keen on. You can see it on his face. It's funny when the team is winning, but when the Tar Heels fall and the shots don't, it's a sore spot for Williams in a career full of them.

He knew defenses were keying on him more in the second half, limiting his ability to help an inconsistent UNC offense. Never mind that his assists were up or that he was shooting more efficiently at all three levels — he wasn't getting quality looks after halftime, and when he did, he wasn't converting.

So he started putting up extra attempts after practice to reverse the slump. He needed to make shots, and if they weren't coming during games, they'd come during his free time instead.

"We always think we're giving as much as we can," he said. "But there's always a little bit more we can give."

 After a prolonged shooting slump, Kenny Williams (24) gave a little more in the gym outside of practice. It's paid off with 35 combined points in his past two games. | Photo by Alex Kormann

After a prolonged shooting slump, Kenny Williams (24) gave a little more in the gym outside of practice. It's paid off with 35 combined points in his past two games. | Photo by Alex Kormann

On Thursday, Williams found a little more to give. When the Duke defense pressed him along the perimeter early in the second half, he drove to the hoop for an easy layup that gave UNC a 10-point lead, its largest of the game. Six minutes later, after missing a three from the left wing, he called for the ball again from the same exact spot and drilled it, again pushing the lead to 10.

He wasn't going anywhere this time.

When the Blue Devils eventually cut the Tar Heel lead to three, it was Williams who weaved through the paint and zipped a pass outside to a wide-open Johnson to break UNC's five-and-a-half-minute scoring drought. When Johnson tipped out a crucial offensive rebound with 1:46 left, it was Williams who chased the ball beyond the arc to secure possession.

And with 21 seconds, when the Blue Devils needed a bucket down five, it was Williams who intercepted a Grayson Allen pass to set up Pinson for the game-sealing dunk.

"Everybody believed, everybody sees it every day (in practice)," Williams said of his performance. "Everybody expected this."

And so he didn't hesitate to announce his presence on Thursday, both on the court and in his grand entrance to the players' lounge. He was back — even if he was never really gone to begin with.

Williams currently leads the Tar Heels in steals, the most reliable defender on a team in desperate need of them. He tied his career high with five assists against Georgia Tech three weeks ago, and he tied his career high with two blocks on Thursday. Unlike last season, when he missed the final 14 games with a meniscus injury, Williams has been a meaningful contributor on the court regardless of his offensive production.

Williams had a brutal slump at the tail end of January, but it doesn't make him a streaky shooter — it just makes him a shooter. And for a player who made one three-pointer his freshman year and missed the entire postseason as a sophomore, Williams's contributions are already being taken for granted by the Tar Heel faithful.

Sure, his scoring splits are an anamoly and the "first-half" nickname is fun. But it's misguided. If anything, his first-half success has opened up UNC's offense in the second half of games, even if the box score doesn't credit Williams for doing so.

He finally got the credit he deserves on Thursday. And after setting two career highs and a school record — against the final team he played against before last year's season-ending injury — it's hard to fault Williams for taking solace in the numbers.

"I wasn't pressuring myself, but I wanted to play well," he said. "I knew I wanted to play well. It just means everything."

Hopefully, for his sake, it means as much to everybody else, too.

@CJacksonCowart

Photos by Alex Kormann