BROOKLYN, N.Y. – It was profanity that kept Brice Johnson on the bench while No. 11 North Carolina fell behind by as many as 11 points in the first half, and it was a yearning to make amends that fueled his career-high 27 points in UNC’s 89-76 win over UCLA.
Johnson, who elevated his play with a career-high 25 points against Tulane on Wednesday in the absence of Kennedy Meeks (knee), tallied just one field goal attempt and a rebound before being pulled with 16:44 on the clock.
A curse word (or two) only loud enough for the bench to hear was muttered, although it was plenty loud enough for Roy Williams, who promptly lit into Johnson as he walked off the court.
“I used some bad language and Coach was really pissed off at me about it, so he sat me for it,” Johnson said.
The 13th-year UNC head coach dismissed the situation during his postgame press conference, telling reporters taking his senior forward out was “not a big thing.”
It was at the time for Johnson, though, who was unsure if and when he would return to the game.
“Coach told me, he said, ‘Hey, you can go sit at the end of the bench, but if you say anything else, you can go to the locker room,’” Johnson said. “I said, ‘Well, I'm not going to say anything, I'm just going to sit here.’ I was worried if I was going to get back in there.
“He looked past me about four times in the rotation. They did take control of the game, but I knew, if I got another chance to go in there, I was going to be able to do what I needed to do. I wasn't going to hold back. I wasn't going to regret getting my second chance. I did mess up in the beginning of the game, and I've got to stop doing stuff like that.”
Those eight minutes and 37 seconds ticked away slowly for Johnson, who watched as UCLA paired hot 3-point shooting (5-of-5 to start) with Tony Parker’s play inside. Once his penance was paid, he re-entered the game with 8:07 to play and UNC trailing 28-19.
Johnson scored on the next possession off a feed from Joel Berry, and then got to work spurring UNC’s late first-half rally by scoring 11 points in the final 5:04. His streaking dunk in transition on a Marcus Paige dime gave the Tar Heels a momentary lead at 38-36 before UCLA’s Bryce Alford tied the game entering halftime.
He added 14 more in the second half to cap an incredibly efficient 29 minutes of play, scoring 27 points on 11-of-12 shooting to go along with nine rebounds. Over his last three games, he’s averaging 22 points on 77.1 percent shooting (27-of-35).
Johnson’s layup with 9:24 to play pushed UNC’s lead to 62-57 and set in motion a torrent of offense that UCLA was unable to match. The Tar Heels made 11 straight field goals – Johnson contributing five of those baskets – over a six-minute stretch that increased the margin to as many as 17 points.
An unintended, yet game-changing, consequence of the benching was the effort level that accompanied him upon his return to the court.
“It put a fire under my butt, and when I got back in there, I was ready to go,” Johnson said.
Williams’s heat-of-the-moment decision served as an ideal motivational tactic that has often been difficult to find for Johnson.
“With Brice, it is a 24-hour job trying to push him every day to get his intensity level up there where it needs to be,” Williams said. “And that’s okay, I have no problem with that.”
The profanity, however, is a different matter.