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The Daily Tar Heel

In 82-78 win over Duke, Kenny Williams and Cameron Johnson make their marks

Williams tied a career-high with 20 points and six threes; Johnson had 18 and 13.

Kenny Williams front page Duke

Guard Kenny Williams (24) celebrates in the final seconds of UNC's 82-78 win over Duke on Thursday night in the Smith Center.

For one player on the North Carolina men’s basketball team, it was the start of a journey, as a Tar Heel, against the Blue Devils. For another, it was his moment to bring a long journey full circle.

Kenny Williams remembers his last game against Duke. It was the last time he stepped on the court during a game last season. 

Not long after UNC lost 86-78 to Duke on Feb. 9, 2017, in Durham, the then-sophomore guard tore his meniscus in practice. His season was over.

His last performance of the year amounted to one missed shot and two rebounds in 20 minutes. He spent the rest of the season on the bench watching his teammates punctuate a national championship run.

So, as he gathered himself to face No. 9 Duke again on Thursday night, the game meant more to him than just the animosity that comes from the two schools. This could be his chance to reconnect against the same team that derailed his plan the year before.

Before the game, he jumped around the locker room and tried not to put too much pressure on himself. Some words from Theo Pinson helped.

“He said, ‘Kenny, if you hesitate once on a shot, I’m going to punch you in the face,’” Williams recalled Pinson saying.

Whether Pinson was serious or not,  

the game didn’t end in a black eye. 

It ended in Williams thrusting his arms into the air and fist-pumping in front of a full-capacity Smith Center. 

While Williams was focusing on how he could get back on track, Cameron Johnson was looking out into the crowd, wondering what his younger self might have thought. At seven years old, he might have believed he’d be there, minutes away from playing in college basketball’s most iconic rivalry. But by age 13? Probably not.

“You always watch it growing up, and every youth basketball player wants to be in that moment ...” Johnson said. “It’s honestly a huge blessing.”

The two players began the game on two different tracks. But in the first half, they brought stability to No. 21 UNC, which was in jeopardy of letting Duke, behind first-years Marvin Bagley III and Gary Trent Jr., pull away in the first half.

Johnson scored first. He scored on a tip-in and gave the Tar Heels an early 2-0 lead. Then, after giving up seven unanswered points, Williams hit a 3-pointer to calm things down.

When the Blue Devils stretched out a 12-point lead down to the half, Williams’ 12 points (on four 3-pointers) and Johnson’s own 13 kept the deficit at four. The two leading scorers, working in unison for a layup or a triple, were the only two things keeping the Tar Heels in the 49-45 game.

“I felt like I couldn’t miss,” Williams said, “and once I got going I think that got the rest of the team going, and we just built on that momentum.”

North Carolina ignited a 16-2 second-half run to tie the game and eventually take the lead. And, once the Tar Heels got their lead, they never gave it up.

The Blue Devils came fighting back furiously, and senior guard Grayson Allen brought the ball down the court, trailing 80-75. It was Williams who stole a pass and tossed the ball ahead for a game-punctuating dunk by Pinson.

They’d done it. The game was all over, with UNC on top, 82-78.  

Williams finished the night with 20 points, tying Hubert Davis’ 1992 record of six 3-pointers made in a game against Duke. And Johnson, the newcomer this season, proved himself, with a final stat line of 18 points and a career-high 13 rebounds.

Johnson and Williams may have started the game on two different journeys, but they walked out of the Smith Center, down the path fans took up to Franklin Street, knowing they’d cemented a spot in Tobacco Road lore.

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