As his teammates will tell you, it was only a matter of time before everything began to click for first-year guard Kerwin Walton.
His 13 points off the bench on a perfect 3-3 outing from 3-point range to go with 4-4 at the free throw line were the spark that motivated UNC's offense to overtake a Kentucky team struggling with foul trouble in North Carolina's 75-63 win on Saturday.
“I mean, we’ve been waiting for that out of Kerwin," sophomore big Armando Bacot said. "We knew it was going to come. He can really shoot the ball."
But even in the first half of North Carolina's gritty CBS Sports Classic win, Walton kept his teammates like Bacot waiting. There wasn't a barrage of flashing lights pointing to this being Walton's breakout performance.
Sure, the first-year nailed the Tar Heels' first 3-pointer of the game to cut Kentucky's lead to 19-15 with 11:43 remaining in the first half. But, like most first-year players not on the level of a Zion Williamson or Kevin Durant, he wasn't immune to some of the common struggles guys can have when they make the jump from high school standout to collegiate role player.
He turned the ball over on a bad entry pass into the post, missed an opportunity to box out for a rebound and picked up a cheap shooting foul during a two-minute stretch near the end of the first frame.
It was the little mistakes like that that forced head coach Roy Williams to turn to more experienced defenders in the second half, limiting Walton to 15 minutes off the bench for the afternoon.
But Walton made the most of those second-half minutes.
It started with a dish to Bacot to chip away at the Wildcats' lead and bring it to 42-44 early in the final half.
“I was telling him earlier because he was hesitating, pump faking, and I tell him this all the time in practice and in games, just shoot it with confidence," first-year point guard Caleb Love said.
And shoot it he did.
Senior forward Garrison Brooks missed a free throw before gathering his own rebound and kicking it out to Love at the top of the arc. A quick extra pass from Love hit an open Walton on the wing for his second 3-pointer of the game.
On UNC's next trip down the floor, Walton hit a stepback 3-pointer over his defender in almost the same spot to tie the game, 49-49. A media timeout just a few seconds later gave his teammates on the bench the opportunity to rush out and hype up their shooter.
"It was amazing just seeing everybody so excited for me," Walton said. "It kind of juiced me up and got me some energy inside. I definitely juiced our whole team up, and we just came out guns blazing. We were excited, and it definitely helped us keep our energy levels up.”
Walton's buckets jumpstarted a 12-1 run for the Tar Heels that proved to be a game-changer and swung the momentum in their favor while Kentucky was too busy battling with foul trouble.
“There’s no question in my mind that Kerwin and Puff (Johnson) gave us the biggest lift of the game," Williams said.
Now that the opening portion of the schedule is complete, North Carolina will turn its attention toward a 20-game onslaught of tough ACC matchups that lies ahead. In the short term, with only a hectic offseason and a haphazard non-conference slate to correct any issues, the Tar Heels will have to rely on unexpected — or in the apparent case of Walton, extremely expected by the rest of his team — breakout performances to buy them more time to gather themselves and contend for an ACC title.
“I already knew my time was coming," Walton said. "Throughout the whole season, all the games we’ve played, I was just being patient."
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