CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – What do you do when your best player picks up a technical foul in a pivotal moment of a game with a trip to the Final Four on the line?
North Carolina head coach Roy Williams faced that exact dilemma in the second half of Sunday’s 88-74 Elite Eight victory over Notre Dame in Philadelphia.
“Am I going to sit him out the rest of the game and not play him anymore?” Williams said during his weekly radio show on Monday. “Or am I going to let him play, not because I owe it to him, but because he was one of our better players and I owe it to the other kids?”
Brice Johnson picked up a loose ball foul with 13:16 to play in the second half. Frustrated in the midst of a mounting FIghting Irish run, the senior forward slammed the ball and then tossed it over his shoulder, thereby picking up a technical foul. Saddled with three fouls and the ire of his head coach, Johnson was relegated to the bench as Notre Dame took its first lead of the second half at 52-51.
“I was standing up cheering for them,” Johnson said after the game. “I turned into a little cheerleader for a minute because I didn’t know if I would ever go back in there.”
Williams eventually sent Johnson back in after more than five minutes had elapsed, but not without warning the All-American that he had better justify the decision.
“Before I put him in, I said ‘I’m going to put you back in, and I’d better not yell at you one time,’” Williams said. “’If I yell at you one time, you better play your butt off.’”
And Johnson did just that, scoring 10 points over the final eight minutes and setting a school record with his 23rd double-double of the season, surpassing Billy Cunningham (22; ‘64). He finished with 25 points and 12 rebounds and was named the East Region’s Most Outstanding Player.
Despite sitting for an extended stretch and playing well when he returned, Johnson could still have more punishment coming his way.
“If you only knew the thoughts and expressions that were going through my mind and the torture that was going through my mind of what I could do to that boy,” Williams said.
That’s fine by Johnson, though. He’s got bigger plans later in the week.
“Whatever it is, I’ll take it,” Johnson said. “I don’t care. I’m going to the Final Four.”
The Heels are headed to the Final Four. Your initial thoughts?
“It was a fun time in the locker room last night, there’s no question about that. The kids feel really good about basically what they’ve done for the last three or four weeks. We had a little meeting today to discuss our plans and what we think might happen and all this kind of stuff, but then we’ll come in tomorrow and we’ll shoot some, and we’ll get back to work on Wednesday.”
What have your emotions been like, starting with the realization last night that you guys were going to win that ballgame and move on to the Final Four?
“Well it was a wide assortment of thoughts and feelings, there’s no question about that. You know I get emotional sometimes, and you’ve heard, I’ve talked about when, I was even inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2007, I had to talk about the ’97 team at Kansas. I apologized to them because I could never get them to the Final Four. That’s, for me, selfishly thinking about my time spent as a basketball coach, I’ve never been able to get over that. This one would have been even worse. I really set our dreams and goals very, very high when the season started. So there was that relief. There was also the joy of looking at Marcus (Paige) and seeing the look on his face when I took him out with 34 seconds to go.
“The reactions of our bench as we’re going down the line. And then all of the silliness after the game, getting your pictures made, them asking me to put my hat on sideways and all that kind of stuff. It’s not just what you coach for, but you do coach, or I do, for that look on the kids’ faces when they’ve accomplished something, and especially if it’s something that’s really difficult to do. The satisfaction I get out of that, and I’m corny, there’s no question about that, but the satisfaction that I get out of the look on their faces is about as good as it gets.”
You got the opportunity to take Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson out individually at the end of the game. Was that a special moment?
“It was. Brice, I said, ‘Come on over, you big rascal.’ And at the same time, I had these other emotions, too. Can’t forget the technical foul, but he’s been simply just awesome for us this year, particularly on the offensive end and the rebounding and blocking shots. He’s been really something. He’s really having a great, great year, and my guess is going to be one of the finalists for the Wooden Award. I think he’ll be one of the five finalists. Unbelievable year.
“Then Marcus has just been the core of the whole thing. He’s held everybody and everything together when things were going south or things weren’t as smooth as everybody wanted. He’s just been phenomenal. One of those guys that—I told our staff again last night, I understand how lucky we’ve been, and let’s be thankful for having to coach that youngster for four years.”
What did you see in Kennedy Meeks during his big weekend in Philadelphia?
“He did some great things, I think it was even last week, I told people to get off his back a little bit, because he’s been important to us. He’s struggled a little bit, but early in the second half, we tried to take the basketball inside, and he got the ball and he scored and he made a couple of passes as well. He was a hard matchup for what they were trying to do, because when (Zach) Auguste got in foul trouble, now they’ve got five perimeter players out there or four perimeter players and Bonzie (Colson), so when he was in there, he really did some good things for us and I was very happy for him.”
What is causing Isaiah Hicks to get in so much foul trouble?
“He’s been doing it all year, so it’s not just something we’ve come across lately. I’ll admit, seven minutes and five fouls in the Indiana game was a little extraordinary, but I think I’ll get this right, in 108 minutes in five games before last night, my boy committed 26 fouls. That’s less than two-and-a-half games, and he’s just got to learn to stay out of foul trouble. He’s unlucky, because he gets caught at the wrong spot at the wrong time. Sometimes I don’t necessarily agree with the refs’ calls, but he’s got to play without fouling. We want him in there at the end of the game, and that’s part of the reason I don’t play him as much in the first half as I do in the second. I asked him one day, ‘What would happen if I started you and Brice both together?’ And he said, ‘One of us is going foul out.’ I said, ‘You’re right.’ It’s an area of concern for us, but we’ve just got to go with it. He’s got to do a better job and stop fouling.”
Do you anticipate any changes or surprises in Syracuse’s game plan considering this is your third meeting?
“They’ll make some tweaks, but they’re not going to start all of a sudden running some single wing. They’ve got to this point by doing something, so they’ll stick with it. Half the audience here doesn’t even know what the crap single wing is, anyway. We’re not going to change a lot. We have a couple things that we’ll do, but Jimmy Boeheim is a good friend. He’s also not dumb. He’s not going to say, ‘Now that we’re in the Final Four, I think we’ll start running it up and down the court and try to score 100 points a game and play man-to-man.’ He’s going to play zone, and they’re going to take good shots, and they’re going to try to make you take bad shots.”