It wasn’t like Brice Johnson stayed sullen for days after North Carolina’s loss at Texas on Saturday, a defeat that left him feeling like he’d failed his team amid his inability to limit his fouls in the first half.
“Kids nowadays,” UNC coach Roy Williams said on Wednesday night, “heck, they take it hard in the locker room and then on the plane they’re all joking around and playing games and stuff and shoot, it’s like somebody reached in and took my freakin’ heart.
“But Brice is Brice and you’ve got to understand that.”
That performance against Texas, though, did stick with Johnson. It motivated him entering the Tar Heels’ game on Wednesday night against Tulane, and it helped inspire Johnson during UNC’s 96-72 victory – a win in which Johnson led the Tar Heels with 25 points and 10 rebounds.
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He led them, too, in plays that made the Smith Center crowd rise to its feet. Johnson evoked that kind of reaction a few times in the first half on wide-open dunks, two or three of them on alley-oops that left the backboard shaking.
It was the kind of performance that illustrated Johnson’s potential. And it followed the kind of performance that illustrated just how maddeningly inconsistent Johnson can be – playing through foul trouble one game and then playing like an All-American the next.
Asked what keeps him from replicating these kinds of performances more often, Johnson repeated the question and came up with an easy answer – and most likely the correct one.
“What keeps me from it?” Johnson asked. “Fouls. Getting in foul trouble. If I stay out of foul trouble, this could happen every night.”
On Wednesday night, “this” included 17 first-half points, no shortage of dunks and a commitment to rebounding, which is something UNC lacked in that loss against Texas. It wasn’t a problem against less-talented Tulane, where former UNC guard Shammond Williams is an assistant coach.
Shammond Williams afterward recounted, through some tears, what it meant to be back in the Smith Center. He felt some nostalgia and, hours after the game ended and the stands had emptied, played some one-on-one against Tar Heels junior guard Nate Britt.
During the game, UNC built a large early lead, led 50-31 at halftime and led by as many as 31 points in the second half. The Green Wave, who entered Wednesday with losses against the likes of Alabama A&M, Southern and Mercer, never threatened to make it competitive, and the Tar Heels amassed no shortage of highlights.
Three of those came on plays that ended with dunks from Johnson.
“He got a couple (dunks) – like three or four lob dunks that got him going,” Paige said. “I will say that he was more attentive to hitting the offensive glass. He was crashing the boards every time, and that was a big point of emphasis for us.”
It was for two reasons: For one, UNC rebounded poorly in the defeat at Texas, where the Longhorns finished with 16 offensive rebounds to the Tar Heels’ four. Second, Wednesday night was UNC’s first game without Kennedy Meeks, the junior forward who will miss an undetermined number of games while recovering from a bruised bone in his knee.
Without Meeks, Johnson, who is already UNC’s most efficient offensive player, plays an even more significant role for the Tar Heels. He will be expected to be a better rebounder and defender – and to stay on the court as much as he can.
Though Johnson didn’t mope after his foul-plagued performance at Texas, where he was limited to five minutes of playing time in the first half amid those three early fouls, Roy Williams has sensed his displeasure. And appreciated it.
“He’s getting frustrated with himself and I like that,” Williams said. “I want him to care. I want him to be ticked off. If you don’t play well, I want it to hurt you.”
Yet Williams took a more mellow approach after his team’s loss on Saturday.
“Coach didn’t try to kill us,” Johnson said. “He just wanted us to work on different things, like boxing out better, closing out better … that’s just the biggest thing we’ve been working on.”
It showed on Wednesday night, in a rout that UNC controlled in all aspects. The Tar Heels finished with 17 offensive rebounds – more than four times what they had at Texas – and 30 of their 36 made shots from the field came off of assists.
Which means that the offense was in sync and rhythm. It helped that Johnson was on the court for most of it, instead of on the bench watching, like he was in the first half on Saturday. With Meeks out, and coming off of a disappointing game, a thought stuck in Johnson’s mind.
“I’ve got to do better,” he said. “I’m a senior and I have to play a little bit better.”
Johnson responded with more points than he’d ever scored in college game. It was another wild swing in a college career full of them, one in which Johnson showed, again, what he’s capable of when he manages to stay on the court.