CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — It took Walker Kessler one afternoon to go from promising reserve to having North Carolina fans — the first allowed to attend games all year — chanting his name.
He earned it, too, after sparking a turnaround that helped the Tar Heels upset the ACC’s top team, boost their NCAA Tournament resume and give their Hall of Fame coach a milestone victory.
The 7-foot-1 freshman scored a season-high 20 to help North Carolina beat No. 11 Florida State 78-70 on Saturday, a game that saw the Tar Heels rally from 16 down on the way to giving Roy Williams his 900th career win.
Kessler had scored 10 in each of his last three games, then surpassed that by going 9-for-10 from the field with 14 points after halftime. He also had season highs of eight rebounds and four blocks for the Tar Heels (15-8, 9-5).
“A lot of my points were just: I was in the right place at the right time,” Kessler said. “Had guards and everyone, bigs, just throwing the ball when I was two feet away from the basket, so props to them too.”
Trailing 41-29 at halftime, the Tar Heels shot 50 percent after the break. 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.
“I do think we showed some immaturity in the first half and showed some maturity in the second half,” Williams said.
By the end, the Tar Heels were making clinching free throws and denying comeback bids from the Seminoles (14-4, 10-3) 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.
RaiQuan Gray scored 17 for FSU, which went from being in firm control to watching it slip away amid a mistake-filled second half. As North Carolina built confidence, FSU shot just 32 percent after the break and committed more turnovers (12) than field goals (11).
“They did to us what normally what we’ve been doing to other people,” Seminoles coach Leonard Hamilton said. “They had an excellent game plan defensively, they were extremely aggressive. They were so aggressive that I thought it creates indecision on some of our parts.
“And sometimes you just got to give teams credit — it’s not as much about what you didn’t do, it’s what they did.”
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.