Inside the North Carolina locker room in one corner of the Donald L. Tucker Center they were trying to come to terms with what they'd witnessed – perhaps the best performance in school history during the past 50 years, and one of the best in the Tar Heels' storied basketball history.
Brice Johnson, the senior forward, had scored 39 points and finished with 23 rebounds and had led the Tar Heels to a 106-90 victory at Florida State on Monday night, and now nobody was quite sure how to put what they'd seen into words.
“I don't have anything to say,” said Johnson's roommate and close friend, Marcus Paige, who scored 30 points himself on Monday. “I'm speechless.”
Sitting down next to Paige was Justin Jackson, the sophomore forward, and all he could do at first was shake his head when he described what Johnson had done.
“(It's) the best performance I've ever been a part of,” Jackson said. “I can't think of anything else I've ever seen or really watched (that compares).”
Only twice in school in school history had a player scored as many points as Johnson did on Monday, and finished with as many rebounds. Billy Cunningham scored 40 points and had 28 rebounds in 1964 game against Maryland, and he scored 48 points and had 25 rebounds later that year against Tulane.
And that was it: the only performances in school history that, statistically, matched or exceeded what Johnson did on Monday night at Florida State. It was a performance that left UNC coach Roy Williams, Johnson's harshest critic, at a loss to think of a time when he'd seen better.
“I tell my guys all the time about some of the great performances,” Williams said. “I've had guys, Nick Collison (at Kansas) against Duke one time had over 20 points, 20 rebounds. Same thing against Texas. Sean May, last game of the regular season over 20 points and rebounds. …
“But this is about as good as any I've ever seen. Particularly on the road.”
Not that Williams plans on letting up on Johnson. If anything, what Johnson did on Monday proves what Williams has believed about Johnson all along.
“I've been on his case for four years and I'm still going to be on his case,” Williams said. “But 39 points, 23 rebounds – that was a man's night.”
The Tar Heels (14-2, 3-0 ACC) entered a hostile environment on Monday, with a home crowd hoping to see Florida State pull off another memorable upset at home. Students near the UNC bench shouted insults at Johnson throughout.
And all the while he kept scoring. And scoring.
After one lay-up and a foul – Johnson made the free-throw for a three-point play – Johnson released a loud, long scream. That was during the second half, when he scored 28 points, many of them important points after Florida State had taken a brief lead.
“We needed a spark,” Johnson said casually, “and I just had to do what I had to do.”
The Seminoles, who trailed by as many as 14 points early in the first half, led 56-55 with about 15 ½ minutes remaining. From there, Johnson made UNC's next four shots from the field – one dunk followed by three lay-ups.
During that stretch, and in moments throughout the second half, UNC used a smaller, quicker lineup. Johnson benefited from the space and when his teammates missed shots he was there to rebound and convert those rebounds into points.
The points came so quickly for Johnson by the end he'd long lost track of them. He said later he wasn't paying so much attention to his scoring as he was his rebounding. He'd never finished a college game with 20 rebounds, and he wanted to change that.
“I was looking at the rebounds the entire time,” Johnson said. “I kept telling myself that I wanted more than 20. That's always been a goal I've had.”
Behind Johnson, UNC regained control of the game and held it throughout the final 10 minutes. When the Seminoles (10-4, 0-2) crept back to make it a two-point game with 10 ½ minutes remaining, Johnson answered on the other end and Paige followed with a jump shot to put the Tar Heels back ahead by six.
UNC never again led by fewer than four points. Paige had one of the more memorable games of his college career, too, and finished with 30 points and five assists.
But “yeah,” he said with a laugh afterward. “That's probably the quietest 30-point game I've ever had.”
As one of Johnson's closest friends, and his roommate, Paige has taken advantage of the proximity to remind Johnson what he's capable of doing. No one at UNC is tougher on Johnson than Williams but, Paige said, “I'm pretty critical sometimes.”
“I get on him because he's my boy,” Paige said. “... That is what we know he's been capable of doing, and he just took a huge step tonight. He was phenomenal.”
“I don't know what was different or what he ate for breakfast. I don't know, man. He was elite. And we needed that.”
There were a lot of “I-don't-knows” in the UNC locker room when it came to what Johnson did. All anyone knew is that they'd seen something memorable, something special. About 15 minutes had gone by after the game and players were still abuzz inside the locker room, celebrating the moment.
That's about when Johnson poked his head in Williams' press conference and asked if the team could wear its warm-ups on the plane ride back to North Carolina.
“You guys think 39 and 23 is OK to let them wear warm-ups back?” Williams asked. “Let's all vote.”
Johnson took his seat at the table at the front of the room.
“Man,” he said, “I can't really put it into perspective.”
Back in the locker room Kennedy Meeks, the junior forward who continues to sit out while recovering from a bruised knee, might have described it better than anyone. He was walking around the room with a towel, shouting the same thing over and over to no one in particular.
“I ain't never seen anybody do this in my life,” he was saying. “Ever."