BROOKLYN — North Carolina guard Marcus Paige describes teammate Brice Johnson as “an outwardly emotional person," and on a Saturday afternoon at the Barclays Center, the senior forward lived up to that billing. There he was, just before halftime, throwing down a two-handed dunk in transition to tie UCLA, then following the score with a primal baseline scream, his arms tensed and his fists balled at his sides. There he was, nine minutes into the second half, laying in a lob from Justin Jackson to push the Tar Heels’ lead to five, then whipping around to shoot Jackson a smile as wide as his skull.
And there he was glued to the North Carolina bench for eight long minutes in the first half, watching coach Roy Williams look past him during five sets of substitutions, as penance for a profane outburst as he left the floor during the Tar Heels’ early-game struggles.
“Coach said, You can go sit at the end of the bench, but if you say anything else, you can go to the locker room,” Johnson explained after. “I was worried if I was going to get back in there.”
This was the Brice Johnson experience in full: a display of ample talent, a flurry of scoring and a dash of consternation for his Hall of Fame coach. But on this day it would be more of the former than the latter, as Johnson turned his benching into a footnote on the best game of his three-plus seasons in Carolina blue. (Or, more accurately on a day in which UNC debuted a different color uniform, Carolina black.) While Paige, the leading scorer for the 11th-ranked Tar Heels, was relatively quiet and most of his teammates spent the first half laying bricks, it was Johnson who spurred their 89–76 win (RECAP | BOX SCORE) by scoring a career-high 27 points on 11-of-12 shooting from the field. Johnson's heroics staved off a Bruins team that had spent the last two weeks collecting top-10 pelts against then-No. 1 Kentucky and then-No. 20 Gonzaga.
It was the second consecutive game in which the oft-erratic Johnson had established a career high in points, topping the 25 he had scored against Tulane three days earlier. Johnson’s collegiate career has been volatile, marked by stretches of impressive scoring and offsetting lapses in focus or on defense that frequently frustrated Williams. “With Brice,” Williams said Saturday, “it’s a 24-hour job pushing his intensity level to where it needs to be.”
Still there has never been doubt about Johnson's ability, as he demonstrated in his five 20-point games last season, or the 19-point, 17-rebound show he put on against East Carolina last December. “He’s always had this,” Paige said. “It’s just he turns it on and off too much.”
This season has been mostly on. According to kenpom.com, Johnson’s offensive efficiency rating of 133.4—a leap from last season’s 114.5—is third among ACC players who use at least 20% of their team’s possessions; film analysis from Synergy Sports Technology grades his defense in the 85th percentile nationally. And his star turn this week at the center of the Tar Heels’ offense came at a time when it was needed most, after starting center Kennedy Meeks suffered a bone bruise on his left knee Monday—two days after a buzzer-beating loss at Texas dropped UNC to 7–2—that will sideline him at least two weeks.
Not that the absence of the 6’10”, 260-pound Meeks was completely unfelt Saturday. Tony Parker, UCLA’s own 260-pound center, bodied his way to nine points and nine rebounds in the first half, helping the Bruins open a double-digit lead just over eight minutes into the game. But North Carolina began to chip away at the end of the first period, with its smaller lineup—including stretches with the 6’10”, 230-pound Johnson at the five and 6’ 6”, 205-pound swingman Theo Pinson at the four—helping space UCLA’s defense and give it the kind of trouble it faced in a season-opening loss to Monmouth and a too-close win over Cal Poly.
The Tar Heels' smaller lineup turned a potential weakness into a strength by helping give Johnson room to operate inside. He closed the first half on a surge, scoring thrice in the final three minutes—including his scream-inspiring dunk—to head into the break with 13 points in 11 minutes of a 38-38 game. In the second half Johnson added 14 more (plus seven of his team-best nine rebounds), making all six of his field goals and melting Williams’s dismay into affection. “I almost hugged him and kissed him one time,” Williams said. “I didn’t think very long about that though.”
For the coach of the preseason No. 1 team that has spent so much of this season shorthanded—Paige, a preseason first-team All-American, missed the first seven games with a broken hand, and returned just two games before Meeks went down—that sort of jubilation is understandable. There is a school of thought that often suggests that such absences can benefit a team in the long run by giving opportunities for other players to grow into larger roles. On a conference call two days before the UCLA game, Williams was asked about the idea. “I really like to have my best players,” he said. If Johnson continues playing as he did Saturday, Williams might not be much worse off.