Brice Johnson made seven of his nine attempts from the field on Saturday during North Carolina’s 78-74 victory against Florida State, and he scored in a variety of ways – on short hook shots and short jump shots and, once, on an authoritative dunk after a missed shot.
And those moments undoubtedly pleased coach Roy Williams. Not more so, though, than the time Johnson found his way on the Smith Center court, on hands and knees, fighting for a loose ball – fighting, period, after Williams has often questioned his fight.
“What play do you think I like more than any play that Brice made in the game?” Williams asked. “He dove on the floor. He didn’t … get on Twitter and ask his followers if he should dive. He dove on the dadgum floor and it got us an extra possession and we scored. And it was a pretty significant move.”
It was that kind of game for the Tar Heels on Saturday. Not the prettiest, at times. Not the easiest.
It was a game in which UNC had to show some fight – some muscle. And some nerve, too.
The Tar Heels led by 10 points with 46 seconds to play before Xavier Rathan-Mayes, the Florida State freshman, made 3-pointers on three consecutive possessions to cut UNC’s lead to three. From there, the Tar Heels made some free throws and made their way off the court following a grind-it-out victory that four players watched from the bench while wearing suits.
UNC was shorthanded, without regular reserves Theo Pinson, who’d suffered a broken foot earlier in the week in a victory against Wake Forest, and Joel Berry, the point guard who missed his fourth consecutive game with a groin injury.
Nate Britt, the sophomore guard, played despite not practicing late in the week after he received 15 stitches to close a gash in his upper lip that he suffered at Wake Forest. And Johnson was hurting, too, with some lower back pain. During most timeouts he stood, instead of sat, in hopes that his back wouldn’t stiffen.
“I was just trying to (be) cautious a little bit and play aggressive at the same time,” he said.
Johnson played just 23 minutes, limited by the back and some mild foul trouble, but he made the most of his time and finished with 18 points and 14 rebounds.
Given that he played through pain and played with an edge, Williams said it might have been Johnson’s best performance in toughness, which is high praise given Williams’ reluctance, at times, to deliver praise Johnson’s way.
“That’s how he does it,” Johnson said of Williams. “I’m kind of used to him not giving me praise. My father didn’t give me praise as a coach (in high school). He did sometimes, most of the time he didn’t. He always wanted me to do better.
“So (Williams is) like my father figure now since my dad’s not around a lot, and back at home. So I take it as encouragement when he yells at me, and when the other coaches yell at me. They expect me to do better, and I know I can do better.”
There are signs, however subtle they might be, that Johnson is becoming more the player Williams believes he can be than the one most deserving of scolding. He has scored in double figures now in five consecutive games – his longest streak of the season.
The past two games, on Saturday and at Wake Forest last Wednesday, Johnson has made 15 of his 20 shots from the field. He scored scored well amid defensive pressure on Saturday, and defended and hustled, too.
“I think he still hasn’t even been close to hitting his ceiling, in terms of being a well-rounded, all-around basketball player,” said Marcus Paige, who led UNC with 19 points on Saturday. “But you see tonight. That was great.
“He played great. … that’s the type of production, we’ll take that all day. He’s still coming along defensively. He’s better than he’s ever been. So he’s getting there, but his ceiling his so high, too, that we like to see him build on performances.
That will be the most important sign of Johnson’s maturation – if he’s able to build on what he did on Saturday. He has had a tendency to follow strong performances with weaker ones, or to suffer breakdowns that draw the ire of the UNC coaching staff.
But now, junior forward J.P. Tokoto said, “He doesn’t take himself out of the game if he misses a couple of shots or misses a rebound, a box out, or a guy beats him or something like that. He keeps playing, which (is a big) improvement from freshmen year.”
A few days before, Williams answered with a resounding “no” a question about whether Johnson was becoming more consistent – more the player, game-in, game-out, that Williams expects. And no, Williams said, he wasn’t ready to “anoint” Johnson on Saturday, either.
But he liked the stat line – 18 points, 14 rebounds in 23 minutes – and he appreciated the hustle, too. Afterward the two plays he praised most were Johnson scrapping for that loose ball and the time in the second half when Tokoto jumped over the UNC bench to save a ball going out of bounds.
On that one, Tokoto crashed into UNC’s equipment manager and a chair broke in the process.
“We can’t wait,” Williams said, “to watch that one on replay.”