UNCASVILLE, Conn. — Few things have been clear in the turmoil that’s been No. 24 North Carolina’s season so far. This is one of them: Brice Johnson gives the Tar Heels an offensive boost and emotional spark unlike any other player on the roster.
Johnson was terrific in UNC's 82-72 win over Richmond in Connecticut.
That spark was the difference for UNC in its 82-72 win against Richmond Saturday afternoon in the opening game of the Hall of Fame Tipoff Tournament at the Mohegan Sun. Johnson had career highs of 24 points and 12 rebounds to help the Tar Heels avoid a second consecutive upset.
Though noted for his offensive post game, it was on the defensive end where Johnson turned the tides for UNC against Richmond. The Tar Heels trailed the Spiders the entire game until Johnson fueled a 6-0 run to end the first half, which gave the Tar Heels a lead they never surrendered.
With 2:22 remaining before the break, Johnson powerfully denied a Kendall Anthony layup, sending into the UNC bench. Less than a minute later, he spiked another Richmond layup attempt. This time, Jackson Simmons corralled the loose ball and sent it upcourt to a streaking Johnson, who slammed home the ball on an authoritative fast-break dunk.
Riding the momentum Johnson created, and behind five Marcus Paige 3-pointers in the second half, UNC held off Richmond to earn a chance to play No. 3 Louisville in the tournament’s championship game on Sunday.
“If Brice plays the way he did today, he’s going to be on the floor a lot. He was rebounding, he was a little more active on the defensive end than he has been,” Paige said. “When he makes a couple good plays in a row, you can tell. It’s obvious how much it affects the team in a positive way. He starts flexing and getting excited, and the whole team gets a little more energy, so he provides a lift for us off the bench.”
The Tar Heels needed Johnson’s emotional lift after starting the contest slowly for the third consecutive game. Richmond, which entered the game shooting 18.7 percent form 3-point range, hit 4-of-11 first-half 3-pointers and controlled the pace of play for most of the early going.
In the first half, James Michael McAdoo was held to five points on two field goal attempts — he finished with just nine points on six shots — and neither Joel James nor Kennedy Meeks were successful within the Spiders’ matchup zone.
Johnson entered the game for the first time at the under-12 media timeout, and he scored a basket in his first minute on the court. UNC trailed by as many as nine points in the opening half, but Johnson gave coach Roy Williams stability while playing the four-spot alongside Meeks and McAdoo. He also slid down to center and gave UNC valuable minutes as its primary big man, something he’s still trying to become comfortable doing.
“It was working. Whatever lineup Coach wants, I’m going to go with it. You just have to go out there and play and bring the energy,” Johnson said. “I mean, hey, I’ve been doing it the whole season. I’ve got to do it. That’s what they need me to. I’m going to come off the bench and bring it.”
As Johnson proved to be the Tar Heels’ most proficient post player Saturday, Williams kept him on the floor for long stretches after the break. He scored 14 points and grabbed nine rebounds in 13 second-half minutes.
It wasn’t just the numbers that made Johnson so important for UNC, though. McAdoo said the effort Johnson brought picked UNC up during a tight contest.
“Brice feeds off energy. When he’s creating his own energy, it’s huge not only for him, but just for the whole team because he’s a beast,” McAdoo said. “A guy like him, I just love playing alongside him and watching him get hype, flexing the muscles … when he’s playing like he is today, it just makes the game so much easier.”
As Williams settled in for his postgame press conference and started speaking about the game, Johnson’s fingerprints were all over everything that made the coach satisfied. He talked, obviously, about Johnson’s – and Paige’s — “big-time performances.” He talked about the toughness UNC showed by ending a difficult first half on a run, which Johnson sparked.
Of course, he also talked about the mistakes UNC made down the stretch that almost opened the door for Richmond to mount a comeback. Johnson had his hand in those, too, such as making a sloppy pass that was stolen and shortly afterward easily laid into the basket.
But, it’s unlikely UNC would’ve been managing a double-digit lead if it wasn’t for Johnson and his first-career double-double.
Johnson is still a work in progress. Paige said UNC is having him work on always channeling his emotion positively. Johnson admitted he needs to get over his own errors more quickly. On the court, he has room to grow physically, and his shot selection is still improving by the game. McAdoo said he can be selfish at times.
At one moment in the game Saturday, Williams lit into Johnson, telling him to make smarter plays. Johnson was running up the court hitting himself in the head at another juncture.
“If he has 24 points and 12 rebounds, and he makes 1,000 mistakes, think how good he could be if he didn’t make 1,000 mistakes,” Williams said. “We need his scoring, there’s no doubt about that. If he will, and I think he will, learn from this game both ways — a very positive feeling for what he did and learn from those mistakes and not make them again — then I think this is going to be a great day for him.”
A thousand mistakes or not, Johnson made enough of the right plays to save the Tar Heels from a 2-2 start.