In the first half of North Carolina’s 89-76 victory against UCLA on Saturday, Tar Heels coach Roy Williams found himself so irate with Brice Johnson that Williams was close to banishing Johnson from the bench to the locker room.
In the second half, with Johnson in the midst of scoring 27 points and setting a career high for the second consecutive game, Williams found himself so enamored with Johnson that “I almost hugged him and kissed him.”
“And then I realized who it was,” Williams said with a straight face.
Such is the relationship Johnson and Williams share: volatile at times, loving in other moments, yet always challenging and often rewarding, as it was on Saturday when Johnson, benched for a long stretch in the first half, helped the Tar Heels to an impressive victory after a sluggish start.
After a defeat last weekend at Texas, No. 11 UNC needed to play well – and needed a victory, most of all – against the No. 22 Bruins in the CBS Sports Classic at the Barclays Center. Yet early on, the Tar Heels were floundering and flustered, and Johnson was on the bench, wondering when he’d play again.
Williams took Johnson out less than four minutes into the game. Johnson walked off the court angrily, mad at himself amid a slow start.
On his way to the bench, Johnson shouted profanity. Loud enough for Williams to hear. Loud enough for those behind the Tar Heels’ bench to hear. Williams said he “didn’t appreciate” what Johnson said, and that, “We’re not going to be like that.”
“I kind of used some bad language, and coach was really (ticked) off at me about it so he sat me for it,” Johnson said. “It put a fire under my butt, and when I got back in there I was ready to go.”
While Johnson sat, UCLA was in control. The Bruins led by 10 points, and then 11, and the minutes ticked away, the Bruins leading and Johnson, the Tar Heels’ most efficient offensive player, on the bench watching and wating.
“I was wondering if I was getting (back) in the game,” Johnson said. “Because coach, he said, ‘Hey, you go sit at the end of the bench but if you say anything else, you go to the locker room.’
“I said, ‘Ohhh,’ – I’m not going to say anything.’ … I was worried if I was getting back in there, because he looked past me about four times in the rotation.”
Johnson re-entered the game with about eight minutes left in the first half, with UCLA leading 28-19. The Bruins’ lead didn’t last, primarily because neither did Johnson’s ineffectiveness.
His first points came about a minute after he re-entered. He scored 11 more during the rest of the half – and 13 total in the final seven minutes, three seconds – to help the Tar Heels tie the game at 38 at halftime.
“Our team picked our energy level up at that point,” Marcus Paige, the senior guard, said of Johnson’s return. “He started locking in defensively, so then we could leave him on the court, and then obviously when he gets the ball he’s pretty much an automatic bucket.”
Paige on Saturday, as he has at times before, described Johnson as “a matchup nightmare.” And Johnson, who made 11 of his 12 shots from the field, was on Saturday, especially with his right-handed jump hook.
It was a move he used repeatedly, and UCLA was helpless to stop it. Johnson used the move throughout the second half, when the Tar Heels turned what had been a close game into something of a rout. They led by as many as 17 points with about 5 1/2 minutes remaining.
“If you give me that opportunity to get in the paint and get my right-hand jump hook then, I’m going to score,” Johnson said simply, matter-of-factly.
UNC, which shot 42.4 percent in the first half, made 61.1 percent of its attempts from the field in the second half. At one point during the second half the Tar Heels made 11 consecutive shots from the field, and during that stretch they went more than six minutes without missing.
Johnson made five of those shots. Joel Berry, the sophomore guard who scored a career-high 17 points, made three of them. Paige, UNC’s leading scorer, didn’t make any of them – though that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing given what was going on around him.
“That’s the one thing that’s different (than) in years past,” said Paige, who finished with 10 points on 2-for-9 shooting. “If I’m not doing well, other guys are doing fantastic this year instead of relying on me to take tough shots and force the offense.
“We’ve got guys that are comfortable picking up my slack.”
And UNC has Johnson, too, playing better than he ever has. He scored 25 points, then a career-high, earlier in the week in the Tar Heels’ victory against Tulane. And then he surpassed that with 27 points in the final 27 minutes and three seconds on Saturday.
UCLA, hampered by some foul trouble, was often slow to defend Johnson, who often found himself open after screens. The rest was just a matter of making open shots. When UNC’s team spokesman announced to reporters afterward that Johnson had set another career-high in scoring, Johnson reacted with surprise.
“Again?” he asked.
It was surprising, though, only because of how the performance began – with Johnson scoreless through the first 13 minutes, and on the bench for eight of those. It was yet another chapter in the complicated relationship between Johnson and Williams.
“It’s not a love-hate relationship,” Williams said. “It’s coaching. And I think that you have to push some guys harder than you do others. I treat my players like I do my own children.”
Williams tried to think if he’s ever shared a relationship like this with another player.
“Not that I can remember,” he said, “but that’s OK, too. I need something unusual to keep me more fired up. This is my 43rd year of coaching. I need to have some Brice Johnsons.”
On Saturday Williams had what he needed – the worst of Johnson early, when he allowed his emotion to get the best of him, and then the best of Johnson later, when he made UNC’s slow start a distant memory.