By Adam Lucas
CLEMSON—This game will find you.
At the end of regulation, Roy Williams had substituted out Kenny Williams in a situation when Clemson would be sending the Tar Heels to the free throw line. Williams is a sub-70 percent free throw shooter for the season, and Nate Britt has made multiple clutch free throws in his Tar Heel career. It was a good substitution, even if the Tar Heels didn’t convert the charity toss on the possession.
So you knew what would happen. The game went to overtime, Isaiah Hicks fouled out (on an illegal screen call, because it was Isaiah Hicks, so of course), Britt subbed in for Hicks, and then Williams had to stay in the game with the Tar Heels up by two points and 20 seconds left in overtime.
Williams, of course, was fouled with 17 seconds left. Think about that. A few minutes earlier, he had been taken out of the game expressly to avoid this situation. Now, here he was. As he stood on the free throw line with over 8,700 Tiger fans screaming at him, senior Nate Britt approached him.
“Hey,” Britt said to Williams, “show them you’ve got ice water in your veins.”
Until now, Williams has not been the ice water guy. He hasn’t had to be. He has been the everything else guy. He has been the dive on the floor guy. He has been the loose ball guy. Until overtime happened, this story probably would’ve contained the phrase, “you can’t tell it from his stat line, but Kenny Williams had an important game.”
Theo Pinson is going to come back sooner rather than later, but the Tar Heels are still going to need Williams. He’s that kind of player, and he’ll find a way to win a game at some point over the next three months without taking a shot.
This time, though, he made shots.
First, he grabbed a defensive board with less than two minutes to play. Then he drained a jumper to give Carolina a two-point lead in overtime. And then—those free throws.
“I have a quick free throw routine,” Williams said. “One bounce and go into the shot. I do that so I don’t have to think about the shot.”
That’s OK, Kenny. The rest of us were thinking about it for you. 0-1 in the ACC. Two-point lead. On the road. One-and-one. One one-and-one opportunity already missed. Plenty of time on the clock for the Tigers if the shot was missed. Clemson hot from the three-point line. Relatively untested sophomore on the line. Oh yes. We were thinking about it.
No problem for someone with the ice water flowing.
“I’ve taken shots like that my whole life,” Williams said. “It’s just that it was in my driveway. That’s how I would always do it. Either the clock was counting down—5, 4, 3, 2, 1…--or I was at the free throw line. And I just did what I’ve stuck with ever since then.”
He swished them, giving Carolina a four-point lead with 17 seconds left and, essentially, sealing the win.
After nailing both of them, he looked over at Britt.
“Man,” he said, “you already know I have ice water in my veins.”
This is what Britt said after the locker room had calmed down 20 minutes after the win, while knotting his tie and looking completely businesslike: “For Kenny to have the poise to knock those down was big for us. Those were such big plays in the game.”
But this is what Britt said in the pandemonium of the celebratory locker room immediately after the win, while jumping around the Tar Heel locker room and screaming: “Ice water! He’s got that ice water in those veins!”
Perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise. In his short UNC career, Williams has unquestionably proven he does not play scared.
As a freshman, he hadn’t made a three-pointer all year, and then drilled a huge one (“No, Kenny, no, no…great shot Kenny!”) against Pittsburgh in the ACC Tournament. Coming into Tuesday night’s game, he was six for his last 20 field goals and two for his last 20 from the three-point line. No matter.
“When I was growing up, my dad always said, ‘You can tell the character of a man by how he reacts to what happens to him, not what happens to him,’” Williams said. “Be resilient. Keep battling.”
And make your free throws. Especially the big ones.
So now we can really enjoy Joel Berry’s 31 points and Kennedy Meeks’ huge rebounding night and the taste of a road win against a Clemson team that desperately wanted a validating victory. All thanks to that sophomore who stepped to the line and knocked down two gigantic shots.
Almost, you know, like he had ice water in his veins.
Williams gave a grin that was borderline sheepish.
“Well,” he said, “that’s what they say.”