Johnson Provides Early Spark

LEXINGTON, Ky. – Brice Johnson turned in arguably his best half of the season in No. 21 North Carolina’s 84-70 loss at No. 1 Kentucky on Saturday.

With his teammates struggling offensively early, Johnson scored 12 points on 6-of-7 shooting to go along with three rebounds. His lone miss was a contested 15-footer that rolled around inside the rim before leaking out.

After having his toughness questioned twice in the first month of the season, Johnson ratcheted up his effort level in a game that demanded it.

“I just have to help my team any way I can,” Johnson told reporters after the game. “I don’t want to be the guy that’s just sitting there on the bench and cheering them the entire time. I want to be, I’ve got to be one of the leaders on this team, so I’ve got to be able to stay in the game to be able to help this team.”

The junior forward’s early-season roller coaster ride started on a high with 23 points on 10-of-15 shooting against Robert Morris before bottoming out in losses to Butler (11 points, 5 turnovers) and Iowa (2 points on 1-of-7 shooting). He was benched following the Butler loss against UCLA, only to enter and earn the defensive player of the game award for the first time in his three years at UNC.

Johnson responded to his Iowa performance with his best stat line of the season, scoring 19 points on 9-of-15 shooting and pulling down a career-high 17 rebounds against East Carolina last Sunday. The Pirates’ strength, however, was on the perimeter with little size on the interior, thereby providing Johnson with plenty of opportunities to capitalize.

The size advantage played in Kentucky’s favor on Saturday, although Johnson’s tenacity helped to negate that differential as the junior attacked the rim instead of settling for jumpers or finesse shots.

“He’s just being more aggressive,” Paige said. “He’s not settling for the fadeaway. He’s taking the ball strong to the rim. We told our big guys, if you get your shot blocked, it doesn’t matter. You have to keep going at the rim. That’s the only way you’re going to score against these guys. And you saw that in the second half. He went up and got his shot blocked, got it back and went up strong and got to the free throw line. That’s the type of aggressive nature that we need Brice to have and he’s shown that the last couple of games.”

Johnson finished with a team-high 15 points on 7-of-12 shooting as Kentucky limited his effectiveness after halftime.

UNC head coach Roy Williams and his starting forward provided different opinions as to why he was held to just three points after the break.

“They gave him some good looks early because it was on the break and a couple out-of-bounds plays, and things like that,” Williams said. “In the second half, I think he made one field goal, I think is all. Their big guys are good. They had 12 steals and five blocked shots and a lot of that was their big guys… Brice did hurt them in the first half, but most of it was in the open court.”

Johnson, on the other hand, pointed to Kentucky’s perimeter defense as a factor in limiting entry passes.

“They put a lot of pressure on the ball and couldn’t it get it down there to me,” Johnson said. “I touched it maybe the first possession and I got a foul and knocked one free throw down. I wish we could have gotten it inside a little bit more. We dominated them a little bit down there at the beginning.”

Johnson’s second half stat line indicates he’s still a work in progress, although his first half efficiency against the top team in the country on its home floor proves the junior is capable of elevating his game.

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