TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – For one night, the praise came without a touch of veiled criticism intended as motivation, as is so often the case for Brice Johnson.
When the senior forward peeked his head into Roy Williams’s postgame press conference to ask if the team could wear warm-ups back to Chapel Hill, his head coach took a vote of the media members in attendance before granting approval.
“Brice, you got the victory, son,” Williams said. “Tell them warm-ups, just because you came in and asked. That’s the first time I’ve been nice to you in four years.”
Some hyperbole, for sure, although for a player that Williams has pushed in every way imaginable during his four years at UNC, Monday’s performance was the payoff for those countless hours of pushing and prodding. It’s been more than 50 years since a North Carolina big man delivered a stat line like the one Johnson posted at the Tucker Center.
Johnson’s 39 points and 23 rebounds, both career highs, marked the third time in school history that a Tar Heel scored at least 39 points and grabbed at least 23 rebounds in a game. Billy Cunningham accomplished that feat twice in 1964, tallying 40 points and 28 rebounds against Maryland on Jan. 13 and then 48 points and 25 rebounds against Tulane on Dec. 10.
Both of those games were played at Woollen Gymnasium, giving Johnson arguably the best road ACC performance of any Tar Heel post player in school history.
“This was about as good as any I’ve ever seen, particularly on the road,” Williams said.
With Joel James and Isaiah Hicks in foul trouble and Florida State’s length frustrating the Tar Heels both on the perimeter and in the post, Johnson elevated his play once Williams elected to go small. After FSU rallied from a 14-point first-half deficit to take a 56-55 lead with 15:49 to play, Marcus Paige gave UNC the lead back with a pair of free throws and then Johnson scored 11 straight points to extend the margin back out to six points.
“They took a one-point lead almost out of nowhere, but we had a guy on our team that put us on his back for a while,” said Paige, who added a quiet 30 points on 10-of-21 shooting.
Johnson scored 22 points and secured 10 rebounds over the final 14:41. The senior out of Orangeburg, S.C. told reporters he was more focused on reaching the 20-rebound plateau, a goal that’s lingered unfulfilled since he arrived on campus. As for the career high in points, he highlighted his head coach’s move to the small lineup with him as the lone post player.
“When we went small, there was a lot more spacing,” Johnson said. “When the guards got in there, I knew to back up into the short corner. They knew I was standing there, so I attribute it to just great spacing on the offensive end. When we have great spacing, we can get easy buckets like that every time.”
This is the third time since Kennedy Meeks was sidelined with a bruised left knee on Dec. 14 that Johnson has set a career high in points. He scored 25 points against Tulane on Dec. 16 and then topped that effort with 27 points three days later against UCLA.
“Just filling the void,” Johnson said of stepping up in Meeks’s absence. “He’s a great low post scorer down there for us. We do miss him a little bit, but at the same time, we do have other guys that can step up. I knew being a senior, I have to be one of the leaders on this team and be able to step up in big-time games like this. It’s just something I needed to do.”
Despite three games in five days to open the ACC schedule, UNC moves to 3-0 in league play for only the third time during the Williams era (’05, ‘08). That's without Meeks, and largely due to Johnson.
“We’ve been roommates for four years,” Paige said. “Other than Coach, I’m pretty critical of him sometimes. I get on him because he’s my boy, but I don’t have anything to say. I’m speechless. That is what we know he’s been capable of doing. He just took a huge step tonight. He was phenomenal.”
As a result, the little jokes and jabs that seemingly go hand-in-hand with any praise Williams directs Johnson’s way were absent following Monday’s win.
“Brice Johnson was off the charts,” the 13th-year UNC head coach said. “I’ve been on his case for four years, I’m still going to be on his case, but 39 points, 23 rebounds, that was a man’s night.”