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When UNC’s leading scorer went down, someone needed to step up

North Carolina’s Roy Williams talks about the victory over NC State

UNC coach Roy Williams talks about the Tar Heels' victory over the NC State Wolfpack at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., Tuesday, January 8, 2019.
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UNC coach Roy Williams talks about the Tar Heels' victory over the NC State Wolfpack at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., Tuesday, January 8, 2019.

Early in the second half of North Carolina’s game against N.C. State on Tuesday, UNC’s Cam Johnson began to feel his leg cramp.

Johnson, a 6-9, 210-pound wing, who averages 16.3 points per game to lead the Tar Heels, took a short breather on the bench, got a cold towel and tried to quickly rehydrate.

But when he re-entered the game, the cramps got worse. A few minutes later, he was down on the court, clutching his right leg.

UNC, which was now without its leading scorer, had to make up for that loss, only up 68-64 with 12 minutes remaining. UNC coach Roy Williams said he tried to put in his five best defenders on the floor to hold off N.C. State’s push.

That strategy worked, and the Tar Heels beat the Wolfpack 90-82 at PNC Arena. UNC is now 16-4 against N.C. State at PNC Arena.

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All five of UNC’s starters scored in double figures, and three finished with double-doubles, including Johnson, who missed the last 12 minutes of the game. He had 15 points and 11 rebounds, while senior guard Kenny Williams had 15 points and 10 rebounds, and senior forward Luke Maye had 21 points and 11 rebounds.

“I’m just glad we won the game,” Johnson said after the win, adding that he would be fine going forward.

During the time Johnson was out, N.C. State had cut UNC’s lead to one point with 10 minutes left in the game. But UNC’s reserves, as well as its other seniors — Maye and Williams — stepped up in Johnson’s absence. Freshman wing Leaky Black answered with a mid-range jump shot, which started a 9-0 run, and UNC took comfortable 10-point lead with less than six minutes left to play.

Meanwhile, back in the locker room, Johnson was performing a juggling act. He drank and ate everything he could to rehydrate in an attempt to get back on the court, while also watching the game on a UNC trainer’s phone.

“I was all over the place in here,” Johnson said. “I tried really hard to get back out there.”

After the Tar Heels extended their lead to 10, the Wolfpack never got closer than four points.

Williams’ 15 points and 10 rebounds were both a season-highs. Freshman guard Coby White, UNC’s third-leading scorer, had 19 points. And Maye, who averaged 32 points and 14 rebounds in two games against N.C. State last year, recorded his sixth double-double of the season.

“We just needed to stay together,” Maye said. “We just needed to have some guys come off the bench, and play well, play hard and that’s all coach asks. ‘Next man up’ is what coach preaches all the time. I think Leaky, (Brandon Robinson), (Nassir Little) all gave us more, and I think that was huge for us.”

UNC senior forward Luke Maye talks about UNC's 90-82 win over NC State on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019 at PNC Arena. Maye had 21 points and 11 rebounds.

UNC sophomore forward Garrison Brooks, who had 11 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists, said he had no doubt the team would step up when Johnson went down.

“We were ready,” he said. “We were ready for this atmosphere, and what they had to bring for us.”

The 12th-ranked Tar Heels (12-3, 2-0 ACC) have won four consecutive games and are 3-2 against teams ranked in the AP Top 25 this season. Along with the win over No. 15 N.C. State, UNC has beaten then-No. 17 UCLA on a neutral court, and then-No. 4 Gonzaga at home. UNC lost to then-No. 7 Michigan on the road, and then-No. 19 Kentucky on a neutral court.

The 80-72 loss to Kentucky on Dec. 22, in which the Tar Heels had little energy and were outhustled, now appears to be a thing of the past, as UNC has opened up ACC play with two wins on the road. Its next game is at home against Louisville on Saturday.

“I told them, I said, ‘hey that’s a pretty good start, 2-0,’” coach Williams said. “I like that, but now put that behind you and be ready to get better the next day in practice.”

There were some things Williams liked about the way his team played and a few things he didn’t. He didn’t like the 23 turnovers, which was tied for a season-high. Part of that was N.C. State’s pressure defense. The Wolfpack (13-2, 1-1) came into the game ranked seventh in the country in defensive turnover percentage, 25 percent.

The Tar Heels turned it over on 26.4 percent of their possessions, which played into Wolfpack’s hands. But the Tar Heels overcame it as a group.

Williams said he felt if the Tar Heels won on the boards against the Wolfpack, then they would win the game.

UNC outrebounded N.C. State 51 to 33. Williams also said Tuesday night was probably one of UNC’s best defensive performances of the season. The Wolfpack shot 28.6 percent from 3 and 42.5 percent from the floor overall.

The Wolfpack never led. NC State tied the game twice in the second half and got within one point on other occasions behind a loud crowd. But each time, UNC seemed to have an answer.

“Heckuva night,” coach Williams said. “Glad to get out of town.”

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Jonathan M. Alexander has been covering the North Carolina Tar Heels since May 2018. He previously covered Duke basketball and recruiting in the ACC. He is an alumnus of N.C. Central University.
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