Williams: Take that, we're back NCAA TOURNAMENT

March 29, 1995|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun Staff Writer

There seems no end to the series of peculiar twists in the four-year college career of Donald Williams, North Carolina's splendid shooting guard.

He was an improbable Tar Heels hero, growing up in Garner, N.C., where he rooted -- along with his father -- against Carolina. Yet, he led the Heels to the national championship in 1993.

He was an unabashed gunner in Garner. Still, he had no problem fitting into Dean Smith's selfless system, averaging 10.6 shots during three seasons as a starter.

He was the Most Outstanding Player as a sophomore in the 1993 Final Four at the Superdome. But, when he goes back to the Final Four this weekend, he won't even be the most outstanding player on his own team.

That his path leads to Seattle and Saturday's national semifinal against defending champion Arkansas seems a fitting final touch to a career that has had its share of peaks and valleys.

That he is routinely overshadowed by Carolina's precocious pair of sophomores -- Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace -- does not appear to bother him, either.

"I just do what I can to make the team better," Williams said. "They're two great players, and the media's going to follow them. They deserve it. The attention on them doesn't bother me, because if we win, everybody's going to get attention. And that's what I want to do, win."

Williams, 22, has a chance to do what Michael Jordan didn't during his illustrious Carolina career. That is, win two national titles. Right now, they've both won one.

This wasn't exactly the plan back in Garner, where Carolina blue was hardly the color of choice.

"Growing up, I could never imagine going to Carolina," Williams said. "I was not a North Carolina fan. I was a big college basketball fan. I followed players. My dad was a North Carolina State fan. . . . I hated North Carolina, probably because of my dad."

He was North Carolina's high school Player of the Year in 1990-91 at Garner. That got the attention of the big-time college programs, including Carolina. Once Williams visited Chapel Hill and met some of the players, his resistance started melting. And when his friends told him he'd never fit in there -- you can't be a gunner for Smith -- he took it more as a challenge.

Fast forward to his sophomore season. That's when he made the quantum leap from backcourt reserve, averaging 2.2 points as a freshman, to Most Outstanding Player in the Final Four. He scored 25 in the national semifinal win over Kansas, then 25 more in the final against Michigan. He hit four free throws in the last 11 seconds to secure the title.

He is the only player in NCAA tournament history to average fewer than four points as a freshman and then be MVP in the Final Four as a sophomore. He also became the first guard to score at least 25 in both the semifinals and final since Purdue's Rick Mount in 1969.

Expectations were immense last season. For a time, Williams appeared equal to the task. He averaged 20.6 points through the first 10 games. Then the other shoe dropped, in the form of tendinitis in his foot. When he came back from that, he suffered a separated shoulder.

His season was a mess, and the bad news was, it would get messier.

North Carolina was bounced out of the NCAA tournament in the second round by Boston College, 75-72. It ended a streak of 13 straight appearances in the Sweet 16 for the Tar Heels.

Williams said he heard the fallout from that defeat all summer. "People were always asking, 'What happened? What happened?' he said. "As soon as the tournament started this season, we heard, 'Don't let BC happen again.'

"We had a great season [in 1993-94], but we lost in the second round and everybody forgot what kind of season we had."

Except Williams, who shot 1-for-12 in the loss. Sports Illustrated put the upset on its cover that week with the headline, "Take That, Tar Heels." Williams hung the cover in his locker this season as a reminder and a motivation.

"It upset me," he said. "It was like they were happy we got beat. I had a real poor game, so I used that for motivation all year."

This season, Williams, 6 feet 3, averaged 15.4 points on 43 percent shooting (39.8 from three-point range). He regained his shooting touch in January, then scored 20 to help beat Georgetown last week, and 18 in North Carolina's upset of Kentucky in the Southeast Regional final. He has just two turnovers in four tournament games.

He's a gunner no more, even though Smith kidded him during a Birmingham news conference about shooting 9-for-35 in a high school game.

"As a senior, he's playing his best basketball," Smith said. "You can't go by statistics. His field-goal and free-throw percentages are down mainly because of early in the season [when he was hurt]. But he's improved very much as a defensive player and in his ability to put the ball on the floor. I think, based on our practice statistics of several thousand shots, he's by far a more consistent shooter. I think he's had a great career."

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