Kessler powers UNC rally for Williams’ 900th win

By R.L. Bynum

CHAPEL HILL — Just when it appeared that North Carolina had no answers for a Florida State defense that was making the Tar Heels’ inside scoring punch disappear, Walker Kessler repeatedly slammed that potential storyline.

The 7–1 freshman helped turn around a game that seemed destined for a Seminoles blowout with 22 points, eight rebounds and four blocks, all season-highs, and was the force the Tar Heels needed to loosen up the FSU defense.

After trailing by 16 points in the first half, UNC (15–8, 9–5 ACC) took control midway through the second half and held on for a huge 78–70 victory Saturday over No. 11 Florida State to entertain fans who were welcome at the Smith Center for the first time this season.

The rally from a 12-point halftime deficit was the fifth-largest for UNC in arena history. It was UNC’s biggest home comeback since beating Georgia Tech 82–75 in 2006 after trailing by 13 at halftime behind 40 points from Tyler Hansbrough.

The Tar Heels celebrate Roy Williams’ 900th career coaching victory.

All of that produced another big number: It was Coach Roy Williams’ 900th victory, which came in fewer seasons (33) and fewer games (1,161) than any other coach. It took Mike Krzyzewski 1,183 games.

“I was focused on one thing: trying to get 15,” Williams said of UNC’s season win total after a rough 83–70 loss to Marquette on Wednesday. “And we laid a bad egg a couple of days ago and I wanted to bounce back desperately.”

Roy Williams’ path to 900

No. 1KansasNov. 25, 198894–81Alaska-Anchorage
No. 100KansasMarch 13, 199284–66Colorado
No. 200KansasJan. 28, 199688–73Nebraska
No. 300KansasFeb. 20, 199960–50Oklahoma
No. 400KansasJan. 15, 200398–70Wyoming
No. 418 — XKansasApril 5, 200394–61Marquette
No. 419 — YUNCNov. 22, 200390–64Old Dominion
No. 500UNCDec. 9, 200694–69High Point
No. 600UNCNov. 29, 200980–73Nevada
No. 700UNCMarch 22, 201378–71Villanova
No. 800UNCJan. 16, 201785–68Syracuse
No. 900UNCSaturday78–70Florida State
X — Last game at Kansas; Y — First game at Carolina

All season, FSU (14–4, 10–3) has shot well from the free-throw line (it made 26 of 27 in beating Carolina 82–75 on Jan. 15) and UNC has struggled. That reversed in the second half when the Seminoles were 5 of 11 and the Tar Heels made all 14 attempts. For the game, UNC was 27 of 30, with both the makes and attempts season-highs. 

“I think it just shows that we can hit free throws,” said Kerwin Walton, who scored 13 points and hit all four of his free-throw attempts. “We’re really good free-throw shooters and we’re better than what we’ve been showing in the past. It really just comes down to a mental thing and just being able to knock them down.”

But all of those free throws might not have meant as much without Kessler’s performance. 

You name it, he delivered: dunks, jumpers, drives, blocks, rebounds and a huge defensive presence the Tar Heels needed around the basket. He even dribbled it up court against pressure in the final minutes. 

Kessler did all of that for Carolina.

“He was playing really hard, and he’s trying his best to get open,” Walton said. “He’s cutting hard. He’s posting up hard. He’s just really working his butt off just to get the ball. So, we’ve got to reward him for bringing the energy and bringing all his hard work. And the fact that he keeps on working to get the ball is going to help him get all these points.”

How did Kessler explain his big game?

“I couldn’t really tell you, honestly,” said Kessler, doing his best to deflect praise. “I just think that our whole home team stepped up and there’s fans. Just a combination of just a bunch of stuff. A lot of my points were just that I was in the right place at the right time.”

Walker Kessler slams home two of his season-high 20 points Saturday

He would only admit that he “might” have heard the crowd chanting his name but added that he would “recommend it if you’ve never experienced it.” 

It was a big highlight for what has been a challenging season for Kessler, who had to go through a pair of COVID-19 pauses even though he never tested positive for the virus.

“It was really tough but everybody in the country is going through stuff,” Kessler said.

He didn’t have more than eight shots or play more than 14 minutes in any game before he had had nine field goals in 24 minutes Saturday against FSU.

“I had a very strong indication at halftime that we were going to win the game,” Kessler said.

Williams has seen the gradual improvement for Kessler all season.

“Give me a kid that cares, that’s a kid who’s going to get better,” Williams said. “He’s been getting better. Today, the pace of the game up and down, we’re finding him around the basket and he’s a great finisher, even on the inbounds play when he knocked in a 10-foot jumper. So, I just thought he was phenomenal for us. And on the defensive end of the floor at the end of the first half, he was one of those guys in there that had at least one block and maybe two during that stretch as well.”

A 16–2 UNC run, including the first 10 points of the second half, turned the game around. A Kessler dunk with 15:20 left gave UNC its first lead since the first few minutes of the game as a different Carolina team showed up for the second half.

“Defensively, we were a lot better in the second half and also they turned it over and that helped us,” Williams said.

An RJ Davis 3-pointer gave Carolina a 55–50 lead and the Heels never trailed after that. Kessler followed that up with a driving basket and a dunk off of a nice Leaky Black pass to push the lead to 59–52 with 8:56 left.  

A Walton 3-pointer and a Bacot dunk made it 66-61 with 4:03 left. A follow shot by Garrison Brooks shoved the lead to 70–62 with 1:24 remaining. Bacot put the game away on two free throws with 42 seconds left.

Other than Kessler, it was a struggle inside for Carolina. Brooks didn’t get off a shot until 18:28 remained in the game, and he missed and ended up with four points. Bacot, who played only eight first-half minutes because of three fouls and didn’t start the second half, took his first shot with 13 minutes left, a missed follow shot. He scored six. Day’Ron Sharpe missed all four of his shots.

Kessler figured out what the other big men couldn’t.

“They always tried to front the post,” said Kessler, who has set or tied his season scoring high in five consecutive games. “So, just trying, before he does, swing your hip toward the high side.”

Four Tar Heels, all freshmen, scored in double figures, with Davis and Caleb Love each scoring 12.

On four previous occasions, three freshmen were the only Tar Heels to score in double figures. It was the first time in program history that UNC had four double-figure scorers and all four of them be freshmen. The most previously was three, which was done four times, the last in a 2007 loss to Boston College with Brandan Wright, Ty Lawson ad Wayne Ellington scoring in double figures.

After UNC scored the game’s first five points, FSU scored the next 10 as the Heels went scoreless for nearly 6½ minutes. A Kessler tip-in ended a stretch of 12 consecutive UNC misses to make it 10–7 with 12:08 left in the first half.

Just like the Marquette game, UNC got off to a 2 of 14 start from the floor. The Seminoles started to roll from there and led 41–29 at halftime. Carolina’s 25% shooting in the first half was the third-lowest in a half in Smith Center history. The only performances worse than that was 23.5% in the second half against Maryland in 2013 and the second half against Akron in 2003.

“We came together as a group and actually picked up the energy,” Davis said. “We had the fans there, so I think that made a big difference. But also we played harder and did the little things.”

The win ended a streak of 10 consecutive losses to ranked teams, which was the second-longest in program history. UNC lost to 12 consecutive ranked teams from 1949 to 1952.

It’s a quick turnaround for UNC, with a trip to Syracuse for a 7 p.m. game Monday (ESPN). The Orange (13–8, 7–7) lost 84–77 at Georgia Tech on Saturday and has lost two consecutive games. The Tar Heels won the first meeting 81–75 in Chapel Hill on Jan. 12.     

Carolina 78, No. 11 FSU 70

UNC statistics

Pool photos by Robert Willett

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