North Carolina had a rough first half as the Cardinals controlled the play at both ends of the court. Even so, UNC managed to escape the first 20 minutes down just five points at 37-32.
For North Carolina, things had to get worse before they got better.
With roughly eight minutes to play in the first half, Johnson was late getting back on defense. The lackadaisical lapse in focus pushed UNC head coach Roy Williams into a rage on the sideline, complete with dramatic sports coat removal. When Johnson made his way over the huddle, Williams, along with others on his staff, blasted their starting big man.
“My manhood was challenged,” Johnson. “Coach Davis and Coach Williams were saying I was soft, and that is the way I played in the first half.”
Louisville’s long and athletic back line has overwhelmed Johnson at times this season. The first time these teams met in Chapel Hill, the junior forward posted a respectable double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds.
The last time these two got together at the KFC Yum! Center on Jan. 31, however, Johnson scored just two points and fouled out after 22 minutes.
The fiery charge by his head coach prevented a similar outcome in Greensboro.
“I think it helps him get going,” UNC guard Joel Berry said. “Sometimes he is able to get going on his own, but sometimes you need some reinforcement to let you know that it’s time to go. From then on, Brice was just a monster down low.”
With Kennedy Meeks still recovering from an illness (he provided 9 points in 19 minutes of play), and Louisville’s defense buckling down, Johnson answered his coaches’ challenge.
After Marcus Paige drained a 3-pointer in the opening moments of the second half, Johnson went to work. On UNC’s next possession the Tar Heel forward flushed home a two-handed slam on a fast break that tied the game at 37 apiece.
On the court, Johnson stressed that he and his teammates needed to keep attacking the rim in the second half.
“You have to go up strong,” Johnson said. “They blocked a couple of my dunks, but you have to keep attacking them because eventually they are going to get there late and you are going to be able to finish.”
That level of persistence would pay off in a big way.
In the first half, Johnson had four points on 2-of-7 shooting and one rebound. In the second half, he responded by scoring 18 points on 5-of-8 shooting and grabbing six rebounds. By the end of the afternoon, Johnson had recorded 22 points – his fourth 20-point performance of the season - and seven rebounds.
As impressive as Johnson was from the field, he was even better from the free throw line. For the season, the Orangeburg, S.C. native has shot a solid percentage from the stripe (67.3 percent). In this game, however, Johnson was clutch when it mattered most, going a perfect 8-for-8 from the line in the second half.
“He had 18 points in the second half and was 8-8 from the free throw line in the second half,” Williams said.” He played a big time game... He played his tail off in the second half and I couldn’t be happier with his second-half play.”
In speaking with the media after the game, the junior forward echoed his head coach’s sentiments.
“That is the one thing I can say is that I manned up in the second half,” Johnson said. “…I was probably the maddest I’ve been in a while.”
The trick now is figuring out how to elevate Johnson’s play from the get-go.
“The problem is we need to get him there sooner,” UNC point guard Marcus Paige said. “We’d love to have him like that the whole game.”
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