Cam Johnson turns ‘F’ grade into his ‘A’ game in UNC’s win over Clemson

UNC's Roy Williams: “We’ve got to figure out a way to do it better”

Five Tar Heels score in double figures during win over Clemson on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018, at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.
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Five Tar Heels score in double figures during win over Clemson on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018, at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Cam Johnson wasn’t very good in North Carolina’s previous game and Roy Williams told him so, only in more words.

Johnson’s response?

His best game in a Carolina uniform with a season-best 21 points and six 3-pointers in the Tar Heels’ 87-79 home win over Clemson on Tuesday.

“If he’s going to make six 3s, I think I’ll get on him every game and see if that works,” Williams said.

Johnson went 6 of 9 from the 3-point line against Clemson. He scored UNC’s first 10 points of the second half and his 3-pointer at 6:04, after Clemson had cut UNC’s lead to 66-64, was one of the biggest shots of the game.

This was the kind of shooting performance UNC had hoped to get out of Johnson when he decided to transfer as a graduate from Pittsburgh in the offseason.

It was the kind of performance Johnson had turned in against UNC last season while with the Panthers. He scored a career-high 24 points, and made six 3s, in an 80-78 loss to the Tar Heels at the Smith Center on Jan. 31.

It’s unrealistic to think Johnson is going to make six 3s every game but he led the Panthers in 3-pointers (78) last season and made 41.5 percent of his 3s. Johnson, who missed the first 10 games of the season with injuries, was 9 of 29 (31 percent) from the 3-point line in the first seven games with the Tar Heels.

UNC needs Johnson’s scoring to be good. He’s averaging 11.1 points on the season after Tuesday’s game.

“We want Cam to shoot,” senior Theo Pinson said. “That’s what he does best.”

North Carolina’s Cameron Johnson (13) takes a shot over Clemson’s Marcquise Reed (2) during the second half on Tuesday, January 16, 2018 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

This is not a point lost on Johnson or Williams. Hence, the pep talk after the Notre Dame game.

“I definitely get that,” Johnson said.

Johnson could still be at Pitt. In an alternate universe, he could probably be leading the ACC scoring, getting as many shots as he could handle on a woeful Pitt team.

But after graduating in three years, he decided putting up big numbers wasn’t his top priority.

“I’m here because I want to win,” Johnson said. “I’m here because I want to be surrounded by talented players. I understand what I have to do to win. Besides just making 3s, there’s a lot that I can do to contribute to the team.”

Johnson knew he had played poorly at Notre Dame on Saturday, even before he received an “F” grade from the coaches based on their film review of the 69-68 UNC win.

“I cannot argue with (the grade),” Johnson said. “I did not play up to my personal standard, up to coach’s standard, and I take full responsibility for that.”

The 6-8 wing finished with seven points and made just 2 of 10 shots. He was a minus-7 in 30 minutes against the Irish.

What did Williams point out that Johnson did wrong? In short, “everything,” Johnson said.

“It was beyond the fact that I missed shots,” Johnson said. “I didn’t play well defensively, I didn’t rebound enough, I didn’t box out enough, I didn’t cut enough, I didn’t set teammates up enough. I just wasn’t playing strong.”

I asked him if anybody had ever gotten on him like I did. He handled it very, very well.

UNC coach Roy Williams

There was an overall lack of urgency. Johnson had a similar effort in a loss at Virginia on Jan. 6 but came back and was more aggressive in a 30-point win over Boston College on Jan. 9.

Williams figured it was the right time to test Johnson’s limits with constructive criticism.

“I asked him if anybody had ever gotten on him like I did,” Williams said. “He handled it very, very well.”

While not a fun experience, Johnson said, the honesty from Williams did help.

“It made me really look forward to this game,” Johnson said.

Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio