Kyron Cartwright thought he had an easy one. The Providence guard drove left and put up a shot over North Carolina’s Nate Britt. Then Brice Johnson happened.
Johnson, a First Team All-American selection by USA Today, Scout and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, rotated over and blocked Cartwright’s attempt into the stands during UNC’s second-round NCAA win.
And isn’t that the story of North Carolina’s season so far?
Brice Johnson happening.
There was a 29-point, 19-rebound performance in a heartbreaking loss to Duke. A 39-point, 23-rebound game – one of the most prolific in UNC history – in a road win at Florida State in January.
Just a week ago, there were eight blocks in the first-round win over Florida Gulf Coast – the most in a NCAA tournament game in school history. The 21 double doubles from Johnson, UNC’s leading scorer and rebounder, are more than any other Division I player participating in this year’s NCAA tournament.
The dominant senior season has catapulted Johnson’s legacy from that of a solid, four-year contributor to one of the best big men in UNC history.
With Saturday's performance, Johnson passed John Henson in the school record books to No. 5 in single-season rebounding, passed Rasheed Wallace to No. 8 in career blocks, and passed Eric Montross to No. 20 in career points. On the career rebound list he's currently at No. 8, with the possibility of passing Brad Daugherty and Mitch Kupchak in the next game. He's also now one double-double shy of Billy Cunningham's single-season record.
Most importantly, Johnson's 2015-16 campaign has changed North Carolina’s perception from underachiever to its reality of ACC regular-season and tournament champions, just two games away from the Final Four.
Not bad for a player who, five years ago, didn’t think he’d be at UNC.
“Just growing up in a small town, there are probably more people who come to the Dean Dome than in my entire home town,” Johnson told Inside Carolina last week. “I never thought I’d be here.”
Only two sentences from Johnson, but also a small peek into his psyche.
A sometimes active lack of self-belief is the reason every coach Johnson’s ever had – his high school coach and father Herman Johnson, his AAU coach Dion Bethea and UNC head coach Roy Williams – has been tough on him.
Herman Johnson, Bethea and Williams knew how much talent Johnson possessed. They knew he was capable of leading UNC to great heights and they knew how to get him there.
It took, however, a change in demeanor, maturation and confidence for Johnson to walk the path they laid out.
“When we first got him, I just felt like it was work ethic that would be the only thing that would change -- would prevent him from being a big-time player,” Williams said. “… I've wanted to push him, and I've tried to do that every day I coached him.”
“At times it's been okay for him…At times it's been very uncomfortable for him,” continued Williams. “At times it's been very uncomfortable for me. But at the same time I'm trying to accomplish the goal to have him be the best player he could possibly be. That's what he wants and he's handled it. Sometimes it hasn't been pleasant for him. There's no question when I make him sit there and watch tape. He makes 99 good plays and one bad one, and I spend all my time talking about the bad one. That's uncomfortable. He's accepted it.”
Bethea coached Johnson for four seasons on the AAU circuit and even accompanied him on his official visit to UNC in September 2011.
“I’m just happy for him,” Bethea said. “He’s showing everyone that he belongs on this level. We always knew he could be in the rafters at UNC; he just had to believe it. His dad was hard on him and I was real hard on him about just playing with that emotion and intensity. (We were hard on him) because he had a lot of immature things he had to grow up from.”
About that intensity, about Brice Johnson happening.
You’ve seen it plenty of times. A snarl after a rebound. A scream, yell and flex after a dunk. It’s what gets Johnson going and something Bethea, Herman Johnson and Williams have talked about since before he committed to UNC.
“One of the things we asked Roy before Brice’s decision was, ‘Are you going to hold that (his emotion and need for growth) against him?’” explained Bethea. “'Are you going to keep him in the doghouse or let him learn a lesson?’ Brice has gotten better every year; he just goes out, meets every challenge and does it. Roy has his ways of getting the best out of Brice.”
Williams added, “There's no doubt in my mind it's (the emotion) not a harmful intent. It's who Brice is… Brice is joy. It's exhilaration. It's passion.”
No matter the ending to the North Carolina’s season, Johnson’s name will end up where Williams, Bethea and his father always thought it could be. The same place Johnson never thought it would be. Hanging in the Smith Center rafters beside Rasheed Wallace, Tyler Zeller, Sean May and Johnson’s roommate Marcus Paige.
“He’s still funny and he still clowns, but he’s grown up a lot,” said Herman Johnson. “He’s smarter, his demeanor is different and he’s grown into a great young man from when he left high school to where is right now. Coach Williams has taken him to another level from where he was when he first got there.”