Walton shoots UNC ahead; Heels pull away from Kentucky

His 3-pointers during key run help UNC take control as the Tar Heels win the inside battles in the second half

By R.L. Bynum

Roy Williams knew the perimeter punch he had with freshman Kerwin Walton, it just took until the seventh game for it to be displayed on a big stage.

The Hall of Fame coach declared before the season that Walton was the best shooter on the team. But Walton had only a pair of 3-pointers and six points combined in the first six games.

Saturday at the CBS Sports Classic in Cleveland, he shot some life into the Tar Heels’ offense after making several freshman mistakes in the first half.

Walton sparked a key 11–2 second-half run with a pair of 3-pointers and a pair of free throws and scored 13 points as No. 22 North Carolina (5–2) recovered from yet another slow start to knock off Kentucky (1–5) 75–63. 

“I knew my time was coming throughout the whole season, all the games we played I was just being patient,” said the 6-5, 205-pound Walton, who wears No. 24 to honor Kobe Bryant. “Every shot I took, it felt great. I kind of knew it was going in as soon as I released it. I always expect every shot I take to go in.”

The Tar Heels didn’t have a player with that mentality last season. Walton’s good play was even more important considering that RJ Davis played only three second-half minutes because of what appeared to be an issue with his left knee.

Kerwin Walton prepares to hit two free throws during a key second-half stretch on Saturday.

“I’m just being confident in myself,” said Walton, who also grabbed a loose ball during that run. “My teammates are constantly trying to tell me to shoot the ball and be confident and play defense and play hard. My main focus is to just compete and try to win games.”

A dunk by Garrison Brooks (who collected 11 points and six rebounds) off of an alley-oop pass from Caleb Love shoved UNC’s lead to seven with 5:33 left during a 20–6 UNC run. A 3-point play on a follow shot by Armando Bacot, who finished with 14 points and eight rebounds, put the Heels up nine with two minutes left.

Walton scored eight consecutive points to give UNC the lead for good at 51–49 with 11:42 left. His most satisfying moment may have come as he was greeted excitedly by his teammates at the start of the first timeout after he made those second-half 3-pointers. 

“It was amazing to see and everybody was so excited for me, kind of juiced and gave me some energy inside,” Walton said. “We just came out like guns blazing. We were excited, and definitely helped us keep our energy up.”

A Walton 3-pointer and an inside bucket by Walker Kessler capped a 9–0 UNC run to trim an 11-point Kentucky lead to two with 10:50 left in the first half. It was Andrew Platek and four freshmen for most of the run (also Love and Day’Ron Sharpe.)

“We needed somebody to step up and make an outside shot and I feel that Kerwin’s our best 3-point shooter. He’s been struggling with it,” Williams said of Walton, who was 2 of 9 from 3-point range coming into the game.  

The big men welcome that perimeter threat.

“It definitely was huge for us,” said Bacot, who noted that opposing teams have been packing their defenses inside in recent games. “But once we get shooting, it’s more one-on-one opportunities for the bigs. We’ve been waiting for that from Kerwin. He can really shoot the ball.”

Carolina fell behind by double digits for the fifth time in seven games. Although the Tar Heels have won three of those (UNLV, N.C. Central and now Kentucky), this isn’t a trend that excites Bacot. He saw that last season and wants no part of it this season.

“We’ve been getting bad starts,” Bacot said. “We still have yet to put together a good two halves of basketball. We went down early. It’s not last year. We’re not going for none of that shit this year. We’re not. Excuse my language but we’re not.”

The Tar Heels dominated the inside battles in the second half.

A big part of the Tar Heels’ turnaround in the second half was rebounding. After Kentucky dominated offensive rebounding percentage in the first half 47.3%–29.4%, Carolina took control under the glass in the second half, when it had a 38.4%–17.8% edge.

Armando Bacot slams down two of his 14 points Saturday against Kentucky.

“We’re not going to get punked this year,” Bacot said. “We’re not going to let teams just come in thinking they can move us around and push us around.”

Sharpe did his part with seven points and a game-high 11 rebounds.

How hard was it for Kentucky? Three frontcourt players — Isaiah Jackson, former Wake Forest player Olivier Sarr and Lance Ware — all fouled out, combining for 15 fouls and nine points.

Love had one of his best games of the season with 11 points, a career-high six assists and only two turnovers and went without a turnover in the first half.

“He took the ball to the basket and made some big shots,” Williams said of Love. “Still didn’t shoot it in from outside. I really think he’s going to be a really, really good shooter, it’s just not going in now.”

A Davis 3-pointer with 4:56 left gave UNC its first lead at 27–25. Kentucky responded with an 11–2 run but a late 3-point play by Love trimmed UNC’s halftime deficit to 38–31.  

It’s a quick turnaround for the Tar Heels, who visit N.C. State (4–1) at 9 p.m. on Tuesday (ACC Network) in their ACC opener. The Wolfpack rebounded from a road loss to Saint Louis with a 69–50 home victory Saturday over Campbell.

No. 22 North Carolina 75, Kentucky 63

UNC statistics through seven games

Photos courtesy of CBS Sports Classic

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