“‘I’m telling you guys, I watched tape,’” freshman guard Theo Pinson remembers Williams telling the North Carolina men’s basketball team earlier this week. “‘The dude can play.’”
Williams had his eye on Wesley Saunders, the Harvard guard who was the Crimson’s only player this season to boast a double-digit scoring average. The one who, before UNC’s eventual 67-65 win over the Crimson Thursday night in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, accounted for 40 percent of Harvard’s total offense. The one who became just the second player in Harvard history and the first since 1982 to earn unanimous All-Ivy League first-team honors three years in a row.
That’s who Williams was concerned about. And on Thursday night, when Saunders launched what could have been Harvard’s game-winning 3-pointer, the Harvard sophomore had validated the Hall of Fame coach’s urgent message to the Tar Heels.
“He was a load, and we knew that,” said Williams of Saunders, who scored a game-high 26 of Harvard’s 65 points. “J.P. (Tokoto) did a pretty doggone good job, but he was really, really hard to guard.”
Tokoto, as one of UNC’s best defenders, is often tasked with guarding the opposing team’s most dominant player.
Against N.C. State in Raleigh he was matched up with Trevor Lacey. When Duke came to town, Quinn Cook was his assignment. And in the ACC Tournament semifinals against Virginia, Williams put his junior forward on Malcolm Brogdon. Saunders — Tokoto said — might have been one of the hardest to guard.
“He’s not as quick as many I’ve guarded, but he’s crafty and he makes tough shots. He’s definitely top five,” Tokoto said. “He’s efficient and he’s one of those guys that can score and looks for his teammates, which I always admire.”
When it came down to the wire, UNC ahead by two points with two seconds left, Tokoto knew exactly who would have the ball. Everyone did.
“They’re going to Saunders,” Tokoto said. “I tried to deny him the ball, and he got it, pulled up from 3.
“I thought he was going to try to drive, so I gave him a little bit of space, I was ready for it. But he pulled up and I’m a lengthy guy so it wasn’t hard.”
And so UNC advances. Sophomore forward Kennedy Meeks was nearly speechless at one point when he struggled to put into words how dangerous and how talented Saunders really is. That’s why the potential-last second shot still haunted him in a victorious UNC locker room after the game.
“Praying that it won’t go in,” he said of his thoughts when Saunders launched it. “It was a lot of stuff going through my head: ‘How are we going to feel in the locker room if he hits this shot? How is coach going to react?’ Thankful that the shot did not go in.”
“We escaped a close one.”