Kenny Williams soaks up spotlight in NCAA Tournament return

Kenny Williams knew this would be his moment.

He told his North Carolina teammates as much before Friday's game against Lipscomb, the junior's first NCAA Tournament game on the active roster since sitting out the second half of the 2016-17 season with a knee injury. He played sparingly in the tournament two years ago, but he didn't record a single shot attempt.

He hardly needed to say anything on Friday. The gravity of this game, the first in the Tar Heels' NCAA title defense, spoke for itself. But in the pregame shootaround before UNC's 84-66 win over the Bisons, he let it flow — both his three-point shot and his jubilation.

"I was so excited this week to play this game ..." said Williams, who scored a game-high 18 points for No. 2 seed North Carolina (26-10). "I just wanted to live in the moment and have fun with it."

 Kenny Williams (24) waited 713 days between NCAA Tournament appearances — from the 2016 Final Four until Friday's win over Lipscomb. He make the most of it, leading UNC with 18 points. | Photo by Caleb Jones

Kenny Williams (24) waited 713 days between NCAA Tournament appearances — from the 2016 Final Four until Friday's win over Lipscomb. He make the most of it, leading UNC with 18 points. | Photo by Caleb Jones

He wonders if it was the lighting in the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, the site of Friday's first-round matchup with No. 15 seed Lipscomb (23-10). Maybe it was the thrill of his first start of his NCAA Tournament career. But, more than likely, it was the excitement bubbling to the surface from a six-day layoff since the ACC Tournament and a 713-day break since Williams' last NCAA Tournament action.

Whatever the reason, the junior guard was feeling it on Friday. And when Williams let out an incoherent noise after a made shot in warmups, Joel Berry needed no explanation. He knew.

"Man," Berry yelled back, "let's go then!"

Williams took no time getting going on Friday. His first attempt came just two minutes in, when he jetted from the left corner and curled around a screen at the top of the key. He rose up, released and fell to the ground. So too did the shot, giving UNC an early 7-3 lead.

"I knew once that first one went in that I was going to have a good day," he said.

Williams picked up two quick fouls and returned to the bench — where he spent the entire 2017 NCAA Tournament — as Lipscomb flirted with the lead. But on his next attempt, off a pass from roommate Luke Maye, he fired off a three from the wing to give the Tar Heels a five-point lead.

 Last year, Kenny Williams (24) had to watch from the bench as his UNC teammates claimed the national title. On Friday against Lipscomb, he was leading them. | Photo by Caleb Jones

Last year, Kenny Williams (24) had to watch from the bench as his UNC teammates claimed the national title. On Friday against Lipscomb, he was leading them. | Photo by Caleb Jones

His next shot, a second-half triple off another Maye assist, gave UNC a 14-point edge, its largest yet. He hit his next one, too, pushing the lead to 16 points a few minutes later.

"He got hot today," said fellow roommate Cameron Johnson said, "and we just kept feeding him."

That shot gave Williams the team lead in points and effectively put the Bisons out of their misery with over 16 minutes left. His teammates were finding him in his sweet spots — on the wings and off screens at the top — and the Virginia native couldn't miss.

The Spectrum Center was roaring behind Williams, who soaked in the spotlight in his first tournament game playing heavy minutes. It was a moment two years in the making.

Last year, after an injury in a February practice sidelined him for the season, he held a courtside seat as his teammates marched to a championship, claiming the sixth NCAA title in program history. He was as celebrated a member of the team as anyone inside the locker room, but the spotlight avoided him in the victory march.

It couldn't miss him Friday, as he hit six of his eight shots and four of his five threes, only missing one in transition just seconds after his fourth consecutive make.

 Kenny Williams (24) hit four consecutive three-point shots on Friday, capped off by this shot above to put UNC ahead by 16 points over Lipscomb. It was the type of game he had dreamed of growing up. | Photo by Caleb Jones

Kenny Williams (24) hit four consecutive three-point shots on Friday, capped off by this shot above to put UNC ahead by 16 points over Lipscomb. It was the type of game he had dreamed of growing up. | Photo by Caleb Jones

"It's one of the greatest feelings in the world," Williams said of his hot hand. "I was really hoping that fifth one would go in."

Williams says he wasn't thinking about last year in the days before Friday's win. And maybe that's true. But the normally jovial shooting guard had an extra smirk on his face after the game, in stark contrast to the buried frustration of his 2017 experience.

"To be able to make an impact on this stage — the stage that you watch growing up your whole life, dreaming to play on — is huge for me," Williams said. "And it was big for the team."

As Williams walked into the locker room, fresh off the postgame podium treatment, he found one final obstacle standing in the spotlight: Garrison Brooks, who was humoring a group of reporters near the entryway. So Williams, jokingly but unabashedly, shoved the 6-foot-9 freshman forward to the ground and gave him a staredown as the media diverted their attention to the high scorer.

This was his moment. Finally, after two years, he was going to enjoy it.

@CJacksonCowart

Photos by Caleb Jones