North Carolina basketball’s signature win a comeback nobody saw coming

Luke DeCock
·4 min read

We’ve reached the point in the season where even the improbable seems routine, and if anyone saw North Carolina not only coming back from 16 down to beat Florida State but with Walker Kessler as the fulcrum of the turnaround, they’re probably the one taking bets, not making them.

Oh, and North Carolina didn’t miss a free throw in the second half.

Anything is truly possible.

Saturday’s 78-70 win over Florida State was the latest confounding performance from the Tar Heels, but it was confounding in a good way, at least for the sake of their season. Lost in the first half and somehow dominant in the second, North Carolina was in deep trouble until the least heralded of the Tar Heels’ many freshmen played the greatest five minutes of his life, in front of cheering fellow students for the first time.

“Playing at a historic program, hearing your name chanted, it’s pretty cool,” Kessler said. “I would recommend it.”

North Carolina managed to cram its entire season into one game against what is clearly the best team in the ACC. The Tar Heels played terribly for most of the first half, took way too many 3-pointers and generally nursed a Marquette hangover for most of 17 minutes.

Then they started getting the ball inside -- via Kessler, no less -- erased a 12-point halftime deficit in less than five minutes and looked like the team that beat the pants off weakened Louisville, only against a full-strength opponent. The Tar Heels even, gasp, made free throws to seal the win.

Which one is the real UNC? Probably both. Who knows? Not Roy Williams.

He admitted Friday he had no clue how his team would react to any given circumstance, how he never saw what he called a “rotten egg” coming against Marquette. It was only hard to reconcile the two halves against Florida State if you thought they could even be reconciled. This is the way it’s going to be for the Tar Heels, whether they make the NCAA tournament or not, a possibility exponentially more likely after Saturday.

“I don’t know,” Williams said. “Think about it guys, God almighty, I thought the Louisville game would have been a springboard, too. The gosh dang diving board broke and everybody fell in the pond.”

North Carolina may be able to beat just about anyone, within the ACC at least. It has also proven capable of losing to just about anyone, even a Marquette team going nowhere in the Big East. There is no predictability, only chaotic inconsistency, even within the same game. Even within the same possession. Even within the same freshman class.

Of the five freshmen playing regularly for the Tar Heels, Kessler has been the least heralded and least utilized, stuck behind Garrison Brooks and Armando Bacot and Day’Ron Sharpe in the frontcourt, slowed by two 14-day contact-tracing quarantines just before the season. He was the best of them Saturday. This was his day, and the second half was his time. With UNC at risk of being blown off the court after that lackluster first half, Kessler took over.

“Walker was the one big guy I thought was positive in the first half, so we started him in the second,” Williams said. “And he was sensational.”

He had a steal, two dunks, a tip-in and two blocks in the first five minutes and change of the half. Over that span, the Tar Heels went from 12 down to two up. That wasn’t all Kessler did -- he finished with 20 points, eight rebounds and four blocks -- but it was a brief stretch of such performative dominance against the team with the ACC’s strongest and deepest and most versatile array of big men that it turned the entire game on its head.

And perhaps North Carolina’s season. This win may not wipe away the stain left by the Marquette loss but it more than balances it out and leaves the Tar Heels in the same relatively secure spot on the NCAA tournament bubble they occupied a week ago. Or an even better one. Anything is possible.