UNCASVILLE, Conn. — Brice Johnson was in the midst of the game of his life his best game, at least, at North Carolina and yet he still felt his emotions boil within late in the Tar Heels 82-72 victory against Richmond on Saturday.
A play or two hadnt gone Johnsons way, and so he became angry, unfocused. And that, in turn, upset UNC coach Roy Williams, who has been asking Johnson to pay more attention to detail and not become lost in the moment.
Thats what was happening at the end a little bit, Johnson said after he came off the bench to score a career-high 24 points, 14 of which came in the second half. I was messing up, getting frustrated. I was going back to last year. (I) just went into a shell, and was just mad.
The Tar Heels (3-1) are but four games into a season in which they have little margin for error. That was evident enough last week during UNCs 83-80 loss against Belmont, which overcame an eight-point deficit during the final 2 ½ minutes.
The Tar Heels cost themselves in that game because they missed a record number of free throws, and because no one emerged when UNC most needed a clutch play.
Johnson did at times on Saturday, when he helped the Tar Heels recover from an early nine-point deficit, and so too did Marcus Paige, who made his final five 3-point attempts and finished with a career-high 26 points. Paiges 3-pointer with about 2 ½ minutes to play gave the Tar Heels a nine-point lead, their largest of the game to that point.
This time, unlike a week ago against Belmont, the Tar Heels held on. It was a big-time performance for both Johnson and Paige, Williams said, and they picked a good time for their most productive collegiate games what with UNC missing its two most experienced perimeter players.
P.J. Hairston, the junior who led UNC in scoring last season, and Leslie McDonald, UNCs only scholarship senior, didnt make the trip to Connecticut for the Naismith Hall of Fame Tip-Off. Its unclear when they might return while they sit out amid NCAA eligibility concerns, UNC will be without them when it plays No. 3 Louisville on Sunday.
The situation has been difficult, and Williams said it troubled him earlier in the week that his players were looking over their shoulder, wondering if the cavalry is going to come back.
And I told them weve got to play with who we have right now, Williams said. If the cavalry does show up, it might strengthen us. If they dont show up, we still have to play.
Given their limitations, UNC is reliant especially on Paige and Johnson. Paige, now starting at shooting guard, needs to provide perimeter offense. Johnson, who also had 12 rebounds on Saturday, needs to become a force on the inside. Both excelled in their roles on Saturday.
Still, the Tar Heels slogged through much of the first half, and led 36-33 at halftime only because they recovered from their sluggish start. In the second half, UNC didnt begin to pull away until Paiges 3 with less than three minutes to play.
For much of the second half, the game was there for taking UNC going ahead by three or five , Richmond (1-3) cutting it back down and the process repeating until the final minutes. Before his 3-pointer gave UNC a 71-62 lead with 2 ½ minutes left, Paige also made a 3 that broke a 56-56 tie with about eight minutes left. UNC never trailed again.
The coaches keep telling me that I have to be aggressive we have to have guys attack from the perimeter, Paige said. So its just something that I have to do. And Im starting to be more comfortable with it.
The way Williams sees it, Paige is a natural scorer. He scored often in high school, even as a point guard, and Paige began to assert himself as a scorer late in his freshman season at UNC.
Now, though, Paiges scoring is less of a bonus, as it was at times last season, and more of a necessity. The Tar Heels have to have it to maximize their potential.
You remember him shooting the ball better the second half of (last) year, Williams said. So I think he is a scorer, and weve got to do a better job of screening for him and getting him the ball.
Johnson, meanwhile, is still honing the finer points of his game. His 24 points and 12 rebounds came in 22 minutes of playing time, and he smiled when asked what it might take for him to play more.
Little things, he said. Like paying attention to detail. Just let (a bad) play go. Dont let the little things frustrate you.
Even while Johnson filled the stat sheet, Williams rarely let up on him from the sideline. The Tar Heels made enough mistakes on Saturday, Williams said, to give me a lot more gray hairs down the stretch.
And in his best game, Johnson made his share.
Think how good he could be if he didnt make 1,000 mistakes, Williams said. Youve got to live with some things. Hes a growing not physically, necessarily but hes growing as a basketball player. Were asking him to do a lot of things.
Williams has asked a lot of his players to do things they hadnt before now. On Saturday, Paige and Johnson made the greatest strides.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter