The 6-foot-9 forward’s poor performance against Notre Dame on Monday night (9 points and five rebounds) prompted questions regarding Johnson’s ability to be strong enough mentally in the matchup against Louisville.
Johnson quieted doubters from the game’s outset when he flushed home a two-handed dunk for UNC’s second basket of the game. In a game where the Tar Heels needed to be aggressive on the boards, Johnson proved to be a positive tone setter early on.
“Brice did some good things,” UNC head coach Roy Williams said after the game. “I thought early he was really good rebounding wise. He had 11 rebounds and he had 8 in the first half.”
Johnson finished the game with a double-double (11 points and 11 rebounds) and also provided a critical basket for the Tar Heels late in the game.
With Carolina down by one in the game’s final minute, point guard Marcus Paige attacked the right side by the basket as four Cardinals defenders came crashing down on the baseline. Somehow, Paige was able to thread the ball through to a perfectly positioned Johnson in front of the hoop.
After corralling the ball right in front of the basket, Johnson then put up a shot that had the crowd on edge. The ball hung on the back edge of the rim for a split -second before rolling to the bottom of the basket as the Dean Dome erupted.
“That’s the one thing we always practice,” Johnson said. “When the guard goes baseline, the big is supposed to open up and get whoever is driving an option… I just happened to be right in front of him and he dumped it off to me, and I was able to hit it.”
On the defensive end, Johnson was tasked with guarding power forward Montrezl Harrell.
Whether he was using his length, or outright denying Harrell the ball, Johnson was able to keep the Cardinals’ best player in check. By the end of the game, Harrell had scored just nine points on 4 of 10 shooting. What’s more, Harrell only brought down five rebounds, a total that is just below half of his regular season average.
“Brice beat him up a little bit,” forward J.P Tokoto said. “He always talks about being an enforcer and he showed it today.”
From a big picture sense, Johnson’s performance could be the breakthrough that Williams has desperately been seeking. All season long Johnson has relied on his length and natural ability to dominate weaker opponents. In UNC’s previous 11 wins, Johnson has averaged six defensive rebounds a game.
However, against quality competition, he has had a difficult time elevating his level of play. In North Carolina’s four losses this season, Johnson has pulled down just six defensive rebounds in total. For a team that has had its struggles shooting the ball, that level of production from one of its starting big men wasn’t cutting it.
Yet, despite all of the questions regarding Johnson’s physicality, aggressiveness, and mental toughness, his teammates remained confident that he could deliver in a big game.
“We were expecting that of Brice,” sophomore guard Nate Britt said. “We know what he is capable of and we know that he can be a beast down there in the paint. That’s what we wanted from him and that’s what he did.”
The key now for Johnson is to be able to replicate that type of production on a consistent basis. After the game, Johnson talked about how important this game was for him and his team going into the meat of its ACC schedule.
“It’s going to help me out confidence-wise because that was a big-time game for us,” Johnson said. “That’s what happens when I show up and play.”
Johnson Mans Up
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