First, Brice Johnson swatted a blocked shot into orbit, the basketball nearly achieving escape velocity before plummeting back to earth somewhere behind the media tribune. Then the North Carolina forward dunked, shot and screamed the Tar Heels past Providence and on to Philadelphia.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
If the Tar Heels' biggest strength is the diversity of their weaponry, Johnson is – and should be – option No. 1. They couldn't find him earlier this season in the home loss to Duke, but they fed the big man on Saturday, and did he ever eat in an 85-66 North Carolina second-round NCAA tournament win.
By the time Johnson got going midway through the second half, spinning to the rim and drawing fouls with impunity, Providence was out of answers and, thanks to foul trouble, running out of players.
There was much in common with that baffling collapse against Duke in February: Johnson dominant against an opponent with two dangerous inside-outside scorers. Marshall Plumlee had four fouls that night; Ben Bentil was in foul trouble Saturday.
Johnson had only two field-goal attempts over the final 17 minutes against Duke as a seven-point lead withered to nothing. Saturday, he fought for position and North Carolina's guards fought to find him. From the point the game was tied at 41, Johnson was 2-for-2 from the field, 7-for-7 from the line and utterly unstoppable.
“I gotta be the aggressive one,” Johnson said. “I can't be the passive one standing behind my man if he's in foul trouble. I have to be the one going at him, posting him up. You gotta be aggressive and just go at it.”
So with that lesson clearly learned, the Tar Heels advance to face Indiana, the team that ended Michael Jordan's career in the 1984 NCAA tournament. (Apparently Dan Dakich was involved.) Their only other NCAA meeting was in the 1981 national-title game, an Indiana victory mere yards away from where they'll meet again Friday. It's hard to believe these two storied programs have bumped into each other so rarely in March and April, but they will now.
A year after putting five teams in the Sweet 16, the ACC already has four moving on, with Notre Dame and Syracuse still to play Sunday.
For the Tar Heels, it's one more hurdle cleared, if not as easily as they might have liked. This wasn't like the ACC tournament, when North Carolina fired on all cylinders, beating people inside, outside, on defense. The Tar Heels had to regroup at halftime to beat 16th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast on Thursday and struggled through the first half Saturday before pulling away in the second.
The Tar Heels definitely led in emotional displays, from Theo Pinson clapping while flat on his back after drawing a charge to multiple Johnson primal screams, the most notable after the blocked shot that nearly went into orbit.
But their emotion was probably the highlight of a first-half performance that was somewhat lacking in other areas – like taking care of the ball and 3-point shooting. Still, with Providence star Kris Dunn spending the majority of the half on the bench in foul trouble, the Tar Heels were able to take a 34-30 lead into halftime without being particularly excited about their play.
It was the second time in three years the Tar Heels fought off a determined individual performance to end the Friars' season. In San Antonio in 2014, it was Bryce Cotton, who had 36 points in a losing effort. Saturday, it was Dunn, a marvelous blur who scored 29 points, not nearly enough.
Johnson walked off the court Saturday with the game ball tucked under his arm, not the first time he'd gone after the ball with aggression that night, but the last.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock