CHARLOTTE — Kenny Williams hadn’t played in an NCAA tournament game for 713 days.
Before tipoff against No. 15 seed Lipscomb on Friday afternoon, he’d last checked in for one meager minute during the North Carolina men’s basketball team’s win over Syracuse in the 2016 Final Four on April 2. He took no shots that night.
Williams had only played eight minutes in tournament play in his career. His only contribution toward a late tournament run had been two free throws in an 83-67 win over Florida Gulf Coast in the first round in 2016.
Last tournament, after a season-ending knee injury, he watched from the sidelines while his teammates went on a national championship run. It seemed like a lot more fun to contribute to a win than watch, and this would finally be his chance to do so.
Don’t think too much of it, Williams remembered thinking before Friday's 88-64 win over Lipscomb. It’s just a basketball game at the end of the day, so just have fun with it.
Williams geared up for his first chance for meaningful minutes, while Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley awaited their first tournament appearance ever. The first-year bigs knew that head coach Roy Williams was expecting major contributions from his bench.
“Coach just told us that he needs bench people to come off and do big things, so we knew today that we needed to come out and play,” Manley said. “Lipscomb was going to be ready for us, and they were going to be fired up because we’re North Carolina.”
The lack of tournament experience for Williams, Manley and Brooks didn’t keep them from doing big things in the game. They would be as vital to the win as Joel Berry II or Theo Pinson, two veterans with more than a dozen tournament games under their belt.
Williams knocked down his first ever field goal in the NCAA Tournament exactly two minutes after the game began, on a 3-pointer to put his team up by four points early.
“I knew once that first one went in that I was going to have a good day,” Williams said. “I told the guys when we were doing our warmups that today was going to be a good day.”
When the second-seeded Tar Heels came charging back in the waning minutes of the first half, Williams returned again for his second shot from behind the arc. Not long afterward, the team went on a 12-1 run into halftime — building a lead they’d hold onto the rest of the game.
In the second half, Williams knocked down another two 3-pointers, two jump shots and two free throws to lead all scorers with 18 points.
Manley had six points and 10 rebounds, and Brooks added seven points. When the two of them were together on the floor, UNC outscored Lipscomb, 13-4. Roy Williams said the two first-year bigs add value from the bench that reaches beyond the stat sheet.
“We can rely on them a little bit for a couple minutes at a time," the coach said. "You don’t have five guys playing 35 minutes, so it helps us with rest."
In the first round, Williams, Manley and Brooks proved they were ready to contribute. As UNC continues tournament play against No. 7 seed Texas A&M on Sunday, their contributions in the starting lineup and off the bench will become even more important.