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Armando Bacot’s three fouls in the first half against Florida State proved to be the best foul trouble a North Carolina player has gotten into all season. Bacot’s benching helped clear the way for the Tar Heels to witness the emergence of freshman Walker Kessler.
The 7-foot-1 center produced a career-high 20 points while playing a career-high 24 minutes to help power the Heels past the Seminoles 78-70 Saturday in the Dean E. Smith Center. His performance may have surprised the roughly 3,200 fans admitted into the arena for the first time due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It certainly surprised the ‘Noles, who had no answers for him defensively, despite several players having a turn defending him. But he has been steadily improving to this point.
“He’s been preparing nonstop,” UNC freshman guard Kerwin Walton said. “Every single practice, before and after, I always see him working on his post moves, working on his touch, getting shots up, making sure he’s sharp before every game... and it goes unseen.”
After Saturday it will be impossible for Kessler to stay hidden. He leads their frontcourt in scoring over the past five games, averaging 11.8 points while shooting 71.4 percent from the field.
It all started to click when he scored a season-high nine points against Virginia. He scored 10 points each against Northeastern, Louisville and Marquette. And it culminated on Saturday, with an outing that confirms he’s not just entering the game to bide time until the starters’ return.
“What people don’t realize is this young man had two, 14-day, close contact quarantines and he never tested positive,” Williams said. “And that second 14 (day) stretch was the two weeks right before practice started.”
Kessler started off the season well behind Carolina’s frontcourt trio of Garrison Brooks, Day’Ron Sharpe and Bacot because he spent valuable practice time in quarantine. Williams said he’s had to work with Kessler about moving on to the next play because, “if he misses a shot, he’s still thinking about it five possessions later.”
Kessler didn’t need any pick-me-ups against FSU — he was 9-for-10 shooting — and added career-highs with eight rebounds and four blocked shots. But he credited the staff and teammates for helping him keep his confidence even while he struggled early.
“Everyone pats you on the shoulder and tells you get your head up and keep going,” Kessler said. “That sounds kind of bad, but you get what I’m saying. They encourage you, just keep you moving forward.”
It was Kessler who proved to be the optimist for Carolina at halftime. The Heels trailed Florida State by 12 points, shooting a season-low 25 percent and committing 14 turnovers in the first half. Yet Kessler said that was the moment he knew the they were going to come back.
Kessler figured their problems were self-inflicted and if the Heels started playing to their potential, they could get back in the game. With Williams inserting him into the second half starting lineup in place of Bacot, Kessler would have a direct role in contributing.
“I just knew,” Kessler said before rethinking. “Knew is probably the wrong word. I had a very strong indication that we were gonna win that game at halftime.”
The Heels’ rally from a 41-29 halftime deficit was their biggest at home since coming back from down 13 to Georgia Tech in 2006.
FSU’s average height of more than 6-feet, 7-and-a-half inches makes it the tallest in Division I according to Kenpom.com. Kessler proved to be a giant and the Heels need him to keep coming up big whenever he’s called upon.
“I know he’s going to keep getting better,” Walton said. “Because this game is definitely gonna motivate him to do better.”