Williams now part of Carolina lore Home-state MVP fulfills dream

April 07, 1993|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS -- When Donald Williams was growing up in Raleigh, N.C., he would go to the basketball court in the apartment complex where his family lived and practice being the hero. And not just in any ordinary game.

In his mind, it was always the Final Four. In his mind, he was Michael Jordan or Lorenzo Charles or some other player who made their mark on college basketball's signature event. Williams thought often about what it would be like to be in that situation.

He dreamed of taking the crucial jumper, as Jordan did to help North Carolina beat Georgetown in 1982; or getting a last-second basket, as Charles did for N.C. State the following year to upset Houston.

"I wanted to have that chance, but I never thought it would happen," Williams said here late Monday night.

Williams, now a 6-foot-2, 180-pound sophomore guard for the Tar Heels, didn't exactly follow in that kind of story line. What he did in North Carolina's 77-71 victory over Michigan was score a game-high 25 points, including the last four free throws after Wolverines star Chris Webber was called for a devastating technical foul by signaling for an extra timeout with 11 seconds to go.

Webber's nightmarish mistake -- which came after the 6-9 sophomore forward had led Michigan with 23 points and 12 rebounds -- was not lost on Williams. "Chris is a great player," said Williams, surrounded in the middle of the North Carolina locker room. "He'll go on and hopefully forget this. I have a feeling of sadness for him."

As joyful as the moment was for Williams, there was another more penetrating hurt pulling at his emotions. It came from knowing that former N.C. State coach Jim Valvano, the first college coach to send Williams a recruiting letter, was losing his battle with cancer.

"Coach V was always great to me," said Williams, who was named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player. "I talked to him at the Duke game this year and he was having a rough time then. I dedicated this game to him."

When Williams was in high school, he was planning to go to either N.C. State or North Carolina. Because of his game, and the way he liked to fire up three-pointers, most thought he would fit in better in Raleigh than he might in Chapel Hill. But Valvano's forced resignation after the 1989-90 season made the decision easy for Williams.

What was difficult was his transition to playing for the Tar Heels. Playing behind Derrick Phelps at point guard -- a position he wasn't comfortable playing -- Williams averaged only 2.2 points a game and shot a disappointing 37.7 percent from the field, including 29 percent on three-pointers.

"It was very frustrating at times," said Williams, whose progress was hampered by a sprained ankle early in his freshman year. "I had hit a really low point."

Said North Carolina coach Dean Smith: "I knew he was down, like a lot of freshmen are when they're not playing. But I knew that Hubert [Davis] was graduating and that we'd need somebody to shoot the three this year. I've always had a lot of confidence in Donald."

The departure of Davis, a first-draft pick of the New York Knicks, left a huge void in North Carolina's lineup. The Tar Heels had a terrific inside game with junior center Eric Montross and senior forward George Lynch. They had a fast-improving wing player in junior forward Brian Reese. And they had a dependable, defensive-minded point guard in junior Derrick Phelps.

It was during the workouts last summer in Chapel Hill that Williams began to gain confidence. It was during those workouts, which always include former Tar Heels stars now in the NBA, that Williams' current teammates told him how important he was going to be to this year's team.

"I told him that he had to score, that he had to be the man," Reese recalled Monday night. "The way he played last summer, I knew Donald was going to have a great year."

It was a good, but not great, year for Williams. He had his moments when he couldn't miss, as happened against N.C. State in early January and against Duke in early March. But in between, Williams had some horrific shooting game, including missing his first nine shots against the Blue Devils in a loss at Durham Feb. 3. He wound up averaging 13.7 points while shooting 46 percent from the field.

But that inconsistency changed during the NCAA tournament, especially after the Tar Heels reached the Sweet 16. Williams scored the last nine points in the East Regional semifinal to help hold off Arkansas, then scored six points in overtime against Cincinnati to help the Tar Heels advance to the Final Four.

All Williams did in the two games here was make 15 of 23 from the field, including 10 of 14 on threes. After Kansas cut a 10-point North Carolina lead to three Saturday, his three-point shot with 2:43 started an 8-0 run that helped the Tar Heels secure a 78-68 victory. He scored 13 points in a little over the last seven minutes against Michigan, including the first five in a 9-0 run that erased a four-point deficit.

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