EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The game was 15 minutes old and Cincinnati was running away from North Carolina when Donald Williams went up for a jumper from the key. It was impossible not to ask: Where had he been?
Williams is rarely invisible for long. A Carolina sophomore guard, XTC he is addicted to shooting. He is a shootist. Pass the ball to him and away it goes. He drives his coach crazy. He shoots just 44 percent. He makes game-winning shots. He carries the team when it matters. One of those players. You can't help noticing him.
He was transparent, though, in the first 15 minutes of the East Regional final yesterday. One basket. Three shots. He did have company. The game's other shootist, Cincinnati's Nick Van Exel, had rendered invisible every other player on both teams.
Van Exel was on a roll that had the crowd standing and roaring at the sheer thrill of it. He had knocked down six three-pointers, seemingly shooting from farther back each time, as if on a dare. The last one was a rainbow job that gave him 21 points, one more than Carolina. Cincinnati was up 13.
"He was really feeling it," Williams said later, smiling, clearly relating.
It was hard to decide what was more surprising, the breathtaking streak itself or the fact that Van Exel was capable of it. He is a shootist who happens not to shoot particularly well: 39 percent for the season, 25 percent for the tournament before yesterday. A shootist never stops, though.
"Everyone's talking about me shooting bad, but I'll always keep going," he had said the day before.
The old line is that you live and die with such players. The ones with no conscience. Cincinnati was living.
On the Carolina bench, Dean Smith had seen enough. "When he reached 21 points, it was time to do something," the coach said. "He was going to bury us."
The Tar Heels went to a double-team and forced Van Exel to begin dribbling to get a shot instead of just pulling up. The plan worked. Van Exel did not score the rest of the half. Carolina cut the big lead to one. Williams chipped in with a jumper.
Once the second half began, Van Exel no longer was the same. The bounce in his step was gone. His adrenalin battery was dead. He tried passing instead of shooting to get some teammates more involved, then stopped even looking for shots, much less making them. Carolina went back to using a single defender, Derrick Phelps. It was enough.
"Nick got tired, was what happened," Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins said.
Meanwhile, Donald Williams was starting to shoot. And score. That's his job, of course. He had no assists and one rebound yesterday. Took 17 shots. Drove his coach crazy. Nothing new there.
"In high school he'd just shoot all night without even thinking," Smith said after the game. "They told me he was an excellent shooter. I said, 'Well, he's certainly a shooter.' He'd take 30 and make 10. But he had so much talent."
He is already the player to whom the Heels go when they're desperate, and it's a team bulging with talent. Smith would hate the suggestion, but the Heels live and die with him just as Cincinnati does with Van Exel. Williams went 4-for-18 in the ACC tournament final. Carolina lost. He scored Carolina's last nine against Arkansas on Friday night. Carolina won.
Yesterday, he started showing up as the teams traded the lead down the second-half stretch. He hit a jumper from the free-throw line, a three-pointer, a jumper from the corner. Now Van Exel was the one who was invisible. Carolina took a four-point lead into the last minute, gave it up and went into overtime.
Then the score was tied and the offense was rotating and Williams came off a screen behind the three-point line. He grabbed the ball and let it fly. Never a doubt.
The next time down the court the offense was rotating again and Williams was coming across the court and a pass was headed toward him, and even before he caught the ball Smith knew it was going up.
"Knock it down, Donald," Smith growled from the sideline.
Williams heard his coach. Caught the pass. Turned and released.
Knocked it down. Ballgame.
It's a funny thing about basketball. You hear that defense wins games, defense and rebounding and passing. That's basically true. But someone has to score the points, right? Someone has to stand up at the end.
Nick Van Exel was long gone when it was time yesterday. In overtime, he threw up a 15-foot air ball and missed two three-pointers.
Donald Williams just wanted the ball.