SAN ANTONIO — A season of what-ifs ended with one more for North Carolina: What if Brice Johnson hadn’t suffered a sprained right ankle Sunday less than six minutes into the Tar Heels’ 85-83 loss against Iowa State?
Johnson, a 6-foot-9 sophomore forward, played exactly two minutes before his injury. He left with 14 minutes, 41 seconds to play before halftime and he didn’t return.
Johnson’s absence left UNC without its best interior offensive player. It also made it significantly more difficult for the Tar Heels to exploit the Cyclones’ smaller, shorter frontcourt.
Even at full strength, Iowa State would have faced a considerable height disadvantage. The Cyclones, though, weren’t at full strength. During their victory against N.C. Central on Friday they lost Georges Niang – a 6-7 forward who averaged 16.7 points – with a broken foot.
“They lost a great player, too,” UNC coach Roy Williams said.
Less than six minutes into the game, though, the Tar Heels lost the one player they might have been relying on the most to take advantage Niang’s absence and Iowa State’s overall lack of size. Johnson had been at his best of late, and he’d scored at least 15 points in each of UNC’s past three games.
During that stretch, he’d shot 75.8 percent from the field.
“So it was a big loss for us, but the biggest (adjustment) was trying to play some other guys who wouldn’t have had that time and (finding) the offense we lost without Brice being in there,” Williams said. “To be honest with you, Brice is not a great defensive player by any means but, boy, (he) protects a lot of things around the rim and blocks a lot of shots around the rim. We didn’t have that possibility out there today.”
Even without Johnson, the Tar Heels still had plenty of size relative to Iowa State. UNC, though, had difficulty translating that size into rebounding success. The Tar Heels finished with one more rebound than the Cyclones, though UNC outscored Iowa State 16-9 on second-chance points.
Tar Heels freshman forward Kennedy Meeks finished with 15 points and 13 rebounds in a season-high 31 minutes, and he played a more significant role on offense than he likely would have had Johnson been available. Williams, though, took Meeks out of the game on Iowa State’s final possession.
If not for the injury, Johnson likely would have been on the court when DeAndre Kane drove the lane and banked in a difficult shot with 1.6 seconds to play. That shot, the final two of Kane’s 24 points, won the game for the Cyclones.
All Johnson could do was watch from the end of the bench.
“I don’t like to speak in hypotheticals,” UNC junior forward James Michael McAdoo said of Johnson’s injury. “We would have loved to have Brice. But at the end of the day, I thought Kennedy stepped up and played great. And other guys really helped fill that role.”
Still, it was clear the Tar Heels missed Johnson, who scored two points and had two offensive rebounds in his two minutes. McAdoo said he didn’t want to play “the game of ifs,” but Johnson’s injury represented another one – perhaps the final one – in a season defined by questions.
When Johnson first left the game, UNC was hopeful he might return. Just before the end of halftime, though, a team spokesman announced Johnson wouldn’t be back.
“He’s our best low-post scorer, by far,” UNC guard Marcus Paige said. “And he’s a matchup nightmare for them. He went down, and I know it hurts him to not be able to fight and compete with us, and that really hurt us.
“But at the same time they lost one of their best players, too. So you can’t use that as an excuse.”
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter