Tar Heels edge No. 11 Florida State
Published 7:05 pm Saturday, February 27, 2021
By Aaron Beard
AP Basketball Writer
CHAPEL HILL — Freshman Walker Kessler scored a season-high 20 points to help North Carolina upset No. 11 Florida State 78-70 on Saturday, earning a needed victory to boost its NCAA Tournament chances while giving coach Roy Williams his 900th career victory.
The 7-foot-1 freshman had 14 of his points after halftime in an huge performance off the bench, providing a game-changing spark for a team that was down 16 with 2 1/2 minutes before halftime.
Trailing 41-29 at halftime, the Tar Heels (15-8, 9-5 Atlantic Coast Conference) shot 50% after halftime. But more importantly, they rode Kessler’s production to better production in the paint while cutting down on the turnovers that undercut any offensive flow in the opening half.
By the end, the Tar Heels were knocking down clinching free throws and denying comeback bids from the ACC’s top team just days after a clunker of a performance in a home loss to Marquette.
Kerwin Walton added 13 points for North Carolina, which made all 10 of its free throws in the final 2:15 to stay in control.
RaiQuan Gray scored 17 points to lead the Seminoles (14-4, 10-3), who went from being in firm control to watching it slip away amid a mistake-filled second half. As North Carolina built confidence, Florida State shot just 32% after the break and committed more turnovers (12) than field goals (11).
When it was over, the Tar Heels joined Williams at midcourt to quickly honor Williams for the milestone victory after becoming just the fourth Division I men’s coach to hit 900 wins.
It also marked North Carolina’s first home game with fans in attendance, which came after Gov. Roy Cooper eased public-gathering restrictions earlier this week to permit indoor arenas with a capacity of at least 5,000 to bring up to 15% of that total. That meant North Carolina could bring around 3,200 fans in the Smith Center seating more than 21,000.
The Seminoles had climbed to the top of the ACC standings by winning nine of 10 since the start of 2021, including a 21-point win against then-No. 7 Virginia. They were also chasing their first win at North Carolina since 2010. But they mirrored the Tar Heels’ turnover troubles after halftime, an unexpectedly shaky performance from a team that has been surging.
North Carolina rallied from a 39-23 deficit. As Kessler completed his huge day, the mask-wearing fans sparsely filling the massive arena chanted the freshman’s name.
North Carolina travels to Syracuse on Monday night.