The senior class on the 2019 UNC men’s basketball team wasn’t expected to accomplish much. Articles written about them portended that such a low recruiting class might keep the Tar Heels from competing with programs like Duke for years to come.
But on Saturday, that just wasn’t true. After being major contributors to the first sweep of the Blue Devils since 2008-09, even Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski had to stop the seniors after the game to congratulate them on great college careers, capped off by a 79-70 win over his fourth-ranked team to end the regular season.
“I think he was just showing appreciation and respect for our careers and our past four years,” recounted senior guard Kenny Williams, who finished with a season-high 18 points.
Williams, who paced his team with the emotional energy of three drawn charges that bubbled over before, during and after the game, wasn’t even supposed to be here. Had it not been for the hiring of Shaka Smart at Texas, he might have been finishing up his career at VCU, rather than in Chapel Hill.
But when Smart left the program nearby where he grew up, Roy Williams gave Kenny Williams another chance at taking a scholarship to his program. Against Duke, Kenny Williams played like he wanted his coach to know how much he appreciated that, something he would tearfully recount after the game in his senior speech.
Like it had for Maye the last four years, the chance the Hall of Fame coach took on Kenny Williams paid off on Saturday.
In the first half, Williams led all Tar Heel scorers with 12 points. Due in part because of Williams and his ability to create plays, UNC remained in striking distance of Duke, down just two at the break. But it was after halftime when the seniors really showed how much they could contribute.
After the break, all 12 of the Tar Heels' first points came from seniors. Sparking a 12-4 run, Maye had five of those points, while Johnson had four and Williams contributed a knock-down 3-pointer. It was on that run when UNC took the momentum for good.
“We hadn’t played the way we wanted to play, but the good news was that we had 20 minutes to play better,” Roy Williams said. “We had to play with our brain and our heart both, and the toughness had to be there. Those three guys did step up to say the least.”
Duke tied the game one last time at the 13:16 mark in the second half before the Tar Heels lengthened out to a double-digit margin down the stretch.
Johnson, who enjoyed the part of a secondary veteran option to Williams, was handed his own chance to join the program two years ago. When Johnson wanted out of Pittsburgh, Roy Williams offered him a new landing spot.
Once he arrived, Maye and Kenny Williams welcomed in Johnson as their third roommate, with an open spot left by Justin Jackson, who’d recently declared for the NBA draft. The three work well together, even though Maye and Williams are much cleaner and organized than Johnson is.
"I came here from a different school and you didn't have to take me in the way you did,” Johnson said. “I feel like this is my family, and this is my home."
On the court, each came through in their own way. Johnson shot the ball well with nine second-half points. Maye quietly brought down 16 rebounds and dished off a career-high seven assists, while Williams continued to provide key plays when called upon in his final game of the regular season.
The three graduating seniors accounted for 39 of the Tar Heels' 79 points. Despite the low expectations of each of them, they were called upon in a top-5 matchup and came through when the team needed them.
In the final moments of the game, with the outcome sealed, each had one final chance to touch the game ball in the final seconds. As the Duke defenders attempted to draw a foul as the clock ran down, Kenny Williams took control. Then he passed it on to Johnson, who held it for a few seconds, then dished it to Maye. When the final horn sounded, Maye tossed the ball in the air as the team celebrated.
On a night when UNC needed them, a group of graduating players proved crucial to beating Duke. But even more than they, they lived down the words meant to define them as players not good enough to do exactly what they did on senior night.
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