NEW YORK — Three minutes into a nationally televised game, and there was Brice Johnson, buried on North Carolina’s bench, which wasn’t ideal for anybody except UCLA.
Regardless, there Johnson was, getting passed over in the rotation, over and over again. It didn’t matter that UNC was light in the frontcourt because of Kennedy Meeks’ injury. Or that UNC was trailing by double-digits in a game it was favored to win by eight.
Roy Williams, for a stretch of 8:37, refused to re-insert Johnson.
So, naturally, the Hall of Fame coach was asked for an explanation afterward.
“Coach got mad at him and took him out. Period. The end,” Williams said. “It’s not a story.”
Except, you know, it is a story.
Even Johnson understood as much.
So he volunteered a more specific explanation.
“I kind of used some bad language and Coach was really pissed-off at me about it,” Johnson said, and the fact that he explained his benching for bad language while using more questionable language garnered a good chuckle from the assembled media. “It put a fire under my butt. And when I got back in there … I was ready to go.”
North Carolina beat UCLA 89-76 in the first game of Saturday’s CBS Sports Classic here at the Barclays Center. Brice Johnson finished with a career-high 27 points and nine rebounds, and that he did it despite being benched for a portion of the first half, and without scoring at all until only 7:03 remained in the first half, underlines the intensity, to use Johnson’s words, of the fire Roy Williams lit under the butt of his best frontcourt player.
All because of some ill-timed and too-loud cuss words.
To be clear, this isn’t some new and steadfast rule for Williams. It’s just that he’s talked to Johnson about his language before, many times. And there were young children sitting directly behind UNC’s bench Saturday. So when Johnson exited the game for the first time and cussed, out of anger, loudly to no one in particular, Williams just snapped.
“Coach told me, he said, ‘Hey, you go sit at the end of the bench, [and] if you say anything else you can go to the locker room,'” Johnson said. “So I was worried about [whether I was going to] get back in there. Because he looked past me about four times in the rotation.”
Eventually, Williams put Johnson back in the game.
Things went beautifully for UNC from that moment on.
Johnson scored his first bucket 64 seconds after re-entering and cut UCLA’s lead to 28-21. He made his next four shots and finished the half with 13 points. That’s how and why North Carolina erased an 11-point deficit and went into the locker room tied 38-38.
The Tar Heels cruised in the final 20 minutes.
Johnson was mostly the reason.
He made all six shots he took and finished 11-of-12 from the field.
“[Johnson] is a pretty good threat — 11 for 12 and nine rebounds,” said UCLA coach Steve Alford, whose Bruins are ranked No. 22 in the AP Top 25. “That’s as good of a team as we’ve played, and I think Johnson’s playing at a really high level right now.”
He is, of course. And that’s the biggest take-away from North Carolina’s second victory over a ranked opponent — that Brice Johnson is playing at a really high level, which suggests UNC has no ceiling on what can be accomplished. Everybody understands Marcus Paige is a great college player, that Justin Jackson is a likely future first-round pick in the NBA Draft, and that Kennedy Meeks, when healthy, is a consistently strong presence in the frontcourt.
UNC probably just needs one more guy to breakthrough and be star-like.
And that guy could be, and probably should be, Brice Johnson.
The 6-foot-9 forward is shooting the ball better than ever, averaging a career-high in points and rebounds, and he’s scored in double-figures in all 11 games. So, yeah, he might need to wash his mouth out with soap from time to time. But if he keeps playing at this level, North Carolina will have a real shot to, as Johnson might put it, be bleeping national champions.