TUCSON, Ariz. — There was about half an hour until tip-off at the UNC women’s basketball team's second-round NCAA Tournament game against Arizona, and a sea of red was already flooding the stands of McKale Memorial Center.
Cardinal red-beaded necklaces, “Bear Down!” signs and even red lightsabers were scattered among the crowd. The center held 8,333 people on Monday, the largest crowd the Tar Heels had played in front of all year — and it wasn't a friendly one.
The noise was deafening, headache-inducing. Jeers were targeted at players all night, in between "U of A!" chants.
And in the third quarter, when a floater from Arizona forward Cate Reese brought the game within seven points — the closest it would get for the rest of the night — Wildcat nation was on its feet.
But Kennedy Todd-Williams wasn’t having any of that noise.
On the very next possession, the sophomore guard sent a dagger 3-pointer home, sending a cutting silence through the cries of the crowd.
After firing that shot, Todd-Williams threw her hands down and walked backwards as the ball hung in the air. She turned to stare down the cardinal-colored stands, and her face remained calm as she let her shot — and the swish of the net — do the talking.
“I don’t know, I kind of blacked out,” Todd-Williams laughingly said of that moment.
In a 63-45 win that earned the No. 5 seed Tar Heels their first Sweet 16 appearance since 2015, Todd-Williams matched her season-highs with 19 points and five assists on an efficient 7-11 shooting clip from the field, championing the Tar Heel offense.
And on the other side of the ball?
Todd-Williams was tasked with guarding Arizona's star guard Shaina Pellington, who had just put up a monster 30 points against UNLV in the Wildcats' first round game. But by the end of the night, Todd-Williams helped hold Pellington to a quiet three points.
“She was running the floor, she was defending and getting steals, she was doing a little bit of everything, which is what we needed her to do," UNC sophomore guard Deja Kelly said. "She was our X factor tonight, and she is probably the biggest reason why we won this game by a lot.”
Todd-Williams’ cool and collected demeanor also served as an anchor for the team when the red sea got rocky. After a testy jump ball in the first half gave possession to the Wildcats, Todd-Williams could be seen calming down her teammates with an assuring glance and two thumbs up.
“I think (the noise) is a little distraction,” she said. “I looked at all the players and I'm like, ‘We’re good, we're okay.’ They are going to go on a run, but we just have to stay composed and know that everything's fine."
In the third quarter, Todd-Williams' composure, along with her seven points and two assists, helped the Tar Heels withstand a brief Arizona run. And as UNC’s lead increased steadily, her levelheadedness became playfulness.
With a minute left in the third and the score at 42-27, Todd-Williams found herself bringing the ball up the court on a fast break. Halfway across the backcourt, Arizona’s Taylor Chavez came forward and took a swipe at the ball. With a smooth move behind the back, Todd-Williams lost her defender for a layup and — if you looked closely — stuck her tongue out in quiet celebration.
“She can be pretty stoic, so can I, I can kind of meet her there,” head coach Courtney Banghart said. “But I said in March, you have to bring it out of yourself. You have to come outside of yourself, and she did that.”
Finishing that play with a light touch on the right side of the rim, Todd-Williams ran back down the court. As she set up on defense and took a brief look outward into the crowd, her focused demeanor melted into a slight smile.
The "ZonaZoo" had gone quiet.
“We knew they had a big crowd, but we were silencing them,” Todd-Williams said.
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