Brice Johnson had been “sensational recently,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said on Wednesday following his team’s 80-69 victory against Clemson. Yet this was one of those frustrating nights for Johnson, the Tar Heels’ enigmatic senior forward.
Johnson, the Tar Heels’ leading scorer, finished with three points and missed seven of his eight shots from the field. He often had Williams shaking his head or raising his hands in frustration, and afterward Williams wondered aloud whether Johnson’s recent success had him feeling a little too good.
“I think he started reading his pub and thinking he was all world – he forgot the work part of it,” Williams said. “But we got by with Brice having one of the worst games that I’ve ever seen him (have).”
“Got by,” as Williams said, is one way to put it. In some ways, though, the Tar Heels thrived offensively in their first ACC game, even without much of a contribution from their best offensive player. They shot 50 percent from the field, turned 13 Clemson turnovers into 19 points and, at times, had the Smith Center crowd on its feet, roaring in appreciation.
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It was another strong offensive performance in what is becoming a long line of them. UNC (12-2, 1-0 ACC) scored 80 points for the 10th consecutive game, and it shot at least 50 percent from the field for the 10th time in 14 games.
And UNC did it with only three points from Johnson and none from Kennedy Meeks, the junior forward who continues to sit out while he recovers from a bruised bone in his knee. The scary thing, for other teams: Williams believes his team hasn’t yet started to reach its offensive potential.
“We haven’t shot the ball well, we really haven’t,” Williams said, despite statistics that suggest otherwise. “... When we start shooting the ball and still get the offensive rebound, we will be really good offensively.”
Clemson (7-6, 0-1), which was seeking its first victory in Chapel Hill, used a predictable game plan. The Tigers tried to slow it down, tried to force their preferred pace, tried to limit UNC’s transition opportunities.
At times Clemson was successful. The Tigers’ size on the interior clearly bothered Johnson, for instance, and Clemson coach Brad Brownell thought his team effectively defended Marcus Paige, the Tar Heels’ senior guard.
“I thought we did a great job on Marcus Paige and he still has 18 points,” Brownell said.
The result was familiar: another Clemson loss at UNC, which improved to 58-0 at home against the Tigers. Yet the formula the Tar Heels are using this season is only familiar to the best offensive teams Williams has coached – teams that, like this one, featured enviable balance and an array of scorers.
Clemson tried to limit Johnson, and did, but UNC simply found other ways to score. The Tigers tried to take Paige out of his element, but he took advantage of opportunities when they presented themselves – like one late in the first half.
Six seconds after rebounding a missed 3-pointer Paige scored on the other end with a magnificent layup. He drove toward the basket from the right side, went up and absorbed contact from Clemson forward Donte Grantham, who fouled Paige.
Before he fell Paige, twisting in the air, threw a shot high off the backboard and it dropped through the rim, barely creating a ripple in the net. He made the free throw for a three-point play that gave the Tar Heels a 34-26 lead.
Thirty seconds later, after a Clemson turnover, UNC sophomore forward Justin Jackson gave the Tar Heels a 10-point lead – their largest in the half – with a dunk that inspired a loud roar from the Smith Center crowd, which was now standing. UNC took a 37-30 lead into halftime.
The sequence – the Paige three-point play and the Jackson layup – provided a glimpse of UNC’s versatility and its ability to thrive in transition, even against a team that did what it could to take away those chances. The Tigers tried desperately not to surrender fastbreak points and yet UNC finished with 17 of them.
“The makeup of our team is so much more complete than it has been in past years, in terms of having outside scoring, inside scoring and a balance and getting out in transition,” said Paige, who led five scorers in double figures. “Our defense is not better but it forces a lot of turnovers.”
UNC again used, with success, a small lineup that the Tigers had difficulty guarding. At times that lineup left Isaiah Hicks, who finished with 14 points, as the Tar Heels’ only true post player, and it left sophomore wing forward Theo Pinson playing big – in the literal and figurative sense.
Pinson finished with 13 points and six rebounds and made three 3-pointers, which left Brownell with a what-can-you-do reaction. When Pinson is making shots from the outside, Brownell said, UNC is that much more difficult to defend.
“It’s getting the shot we all want,” Pinson said when asked to describe the key to the success of UNC’s offense, which leads the nation in efficiency. “And everybody has confidence in each other – that we can knock down shots. And everybody’s put in work off the court that everybody doesn’t see.”
What can be seen, though, might alarm UNC’s competition. Without much from Johnson, and without anything from Meeks, the Tar Heels scored 80 points and shot 50 percent and won their conference opener with relative ease, even after Clemson twice cut UNC’s lead to six points in the second half.
Both times the Tar Heels opened it back up, and Paige punctuated the victory with a rare dunk in the final minutes. That was something new, too – at least for this season. It was Paige’s first dunk since his sophomore year.
“I never expect to actually get one,” said the 6-foot-2 Paige, “but when the opportunity presents itself as a little guy, you can’t pass it up.”