When Jeff Lebo, the East Carolina coach, saw that North Carolina had lost against Iowa last week, he said, “There were tears in my eyes.”
And not just because Lebo is a UNC alum who played for the Tar Heels. No, Lebo said he knew what kind of UNC team his Pirates would see on Sunday at the Smith Center – and the Tar Heels’ 108-64 victory against ECU proved him correct.
UNC against Iowa lacked toughness, and the ability to make shots. It didn’t lack for much of anything on Sunday, though, in a victory that might have been the Tar Heels’ most complete of the season.
“We invested a heck of a lot more the past couple days,” UNC coach Roy Williams said.
And he made sure of that. Williams last week after the Iowa loss was critical of the team’s intensity and energy – similar to how he was after a defeat against Butler in the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas.
And after the Iowa defeat, some players spoke openly about their lack of toughness. Nobody was more critical of himself than Brice Johnson, the junior forward, who said that at times he played “like a baby.”
There were rough moments early on Sunday for Johnson, who missed his first three shots. But he finished with 19 points and a career-high 17 rebounds – and with what was among the best games of his time at UNC.
“His whole mind was into the game,” Williams said. “The other night, he missed his two shots and got a call that bothered him and he was out of it. And today he missed his first three shots, and he kept playing and rebounding the basketball.”
Johnson credited his success afterward to the emergence of his good side. He told a story about his alter ego, who he calls “Jonathan” – which is Johnson’s given first name. In high school, when Johnson was playing on a team coached by his father, his dad would tell him to play less like Jonathan and more like Brice.
“Jonathan is the one that fouls a lot,” Johnson said. “And doesn’t do what coach tells him to do. Brice is the one that showed up tonight and had 17 rebounds and 19 points. Brice is the player coach recruited. Jonathan’s not. So I need to play like Brice and not Jonathan.”
The Tar Heels will take playing like they did, overall, on Sunday. UNC shot a season-high 60 percent, led 48-29 at halftime and scored 60 points during the second half.
Johnson was one of four UNC players who scored in double figures, along with forwards J.P. Tokoto (19 points) and Kennedy Meeks (12) and Nate Britt (10), the sophomore guard.
Rebounding, which has been a problem point at times for UNC, wasn’t on Sunday. The Tar Heels finished with 51 rebounds to ECU’s 29 and Meeks, who had 11 rebounds, put together his fifth double-double of the season.
UNC’s success on Sunday began in the day before, during practice. Williams challenged his players after that ugly loss against Iowa.
“We usually have a practice that’s a little scaled back the day before a game,” said Marcus Paige, the junior guard who finished with eight points and six assists. “And that was not the case yesterday. A firsthand account – that was not the case. And I think we needed that, and we’ll probably have more of those going forward, just because it teaches us to respond.”