Court Vision: Banged-up No. 15 North Carolina holds off Florida State

North Carolina head coach Roy Wililams was more excited about Brice Johnson diving on the floor for a loose ball than he was with the junior's 18 points and 14 rebounds against Florida State.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — No. 15 North Carolina (16-4, 6-1 ACC) needed every bit of everything it got against Florida State (10-10, 2-5) to get its fifth straight win by a final of 78-74. The Tar Heels have now had back-to-back ugly wins at home with a good road win at Wake Forest sandwiched in between, and the tough part of their ACC slate hasn’t yet begun. Florida State, meanwhile, showed plenty of signs of growth.

1. North Carolina’s health issues have been both good and bad

None of North Carolina’s myriad of injuries are to key rotation players, necessarily. Yes, Marcus Paige is dealing with plantar fasciitis, and point guard Nate Britt played through getting 15 stitches in his lip after the Wake Forest game on Wednesday. But none of it is season-ending, and all of it is tolerable.

But with freshman point guard Joel Berry out with a strained groin (he’ll be reevaluated next week) and freshman wing Theo Pinson out indefinitely with a broken foot, the Tar Heels’ depth — considerable at the beginning of the season — is beginning to take a hit. Then forward Brice Johnson tweaked his back in warmups, and backup forward Joel James hurt his knee and couldn’t return to the game.

It leaves North Carolina, essentially, with two point guards available (Britt and Paige, if necessary) and both of them were playing hurt. As for the 2-3 spot? It’s Paige, freshman Justin Jackson and J.P. Tokoto. And that’s it. Three guys total for two spots on the court.

In the short term, none of that is good. The Tar Heels have been forced to go zone for two straight games now due to foul trouble and/or depth, and they’re not as intense as they were defensively, which head coach Roy Williams attributes partly to the modified practices they’ve been forced to have.

"I think our sustained effort defensively. We’re pretty good for the first 10 seconds and then all of a sudden we get into rarified air that we haven’t been before in maintaining the defensive intensity and finishing it. They got 11 offensive rebounds, but they got a lot more of them in the first half than they did the second. I think just sustaining the effort," Williams said.

"We tried some zone, we tried some 1-3-1, just a few things to see if we could try to change things up and buy some time. It wasn’t a comfortable day for us."

Britt’s 15 stitches inside his upper lip caused him to be held out of the contact part of practice on Friday, but he insisted he was fine. And his 14 minutes were big — they allowed the trio of Paige, Jackson and Tokoto to get rest. But in the beginning of the game, he felt a little off. And it’s probably the same way for a lot of the Tar Heels being held out or limited.

"It’s like a mind thing. Like for me, not being able to do contact yesterday, in my mind, I just felt like maybe I’m not as prepared as I need to be for the game," Britt said. "But Coach did a good job of helping me understand everything that we were trying to do defensively while I was in practice without doing any contact stuff."

But in another way, it’s good. Because this team — a group whose lack of toughness Williams has often bemoaned — is finding it by necessity.

This stretch of games has not been against the ACC’s best teams, and that’s been a blessing. But those teams have all given North Carolina fits at times. And they’ve had to fight through it.

"We’ve done a pretty nice job of that, but it’s still so early in the season. Who knows what’s going to happen … we’ve got 11 more ACC games. If you’re not going to grind it out in this league, you’er going to get your tail beat," Williams said. "But I have been impressed by — they don’t jabber at each other when somebody makes a mistake. They stick their head back, say ‘all right, let’s go, pick him up’. At the same time, we keep trying."

After the Virginia Tech game on Sunday — as ugly a game as his team has played all year — Williams visibly and vocally bemoaned his team’s lack of toughness and fire. But in this game, North Carolina played much harder on both ends and dove for loose balls with reckless abandon.

"This was probably the most physical game we’ve played in the ACC," Jackson said. "To be able to play through that and keep on playing hard and come out with the win, that’s definitely a good sign."

As North Carolina tries to work with its limited rotation, the necessary toughness it’s building in this group could pay off down the stretch. But it doesn’t get easier — North Carolina gets a day off before facing Syracuse on Monday, then will be at No. 11 Louisville on Saturday and hosts No. 2 Virginia the following Monday.

2. As Brice Johnson continues to grow, Roy Williams continues to push

As Carolina has increasingly become an inside-out team, the Tar Heel offense has, of course, looked much better and crisper.

A big part of that has been Johnson, who has averaged 18.5 points on 15-of-20 shooting in the last two games. He had just six rebounds in the win at Wake — something Williams was quick to point out — but he had 14 against Florida State, and pulled many of them down with authority, yelling afterwards. He yelled after he dunked or get fouled on a basket. He was just … mad.

"I was just mad the entire time. I try to play mad sometimes. sometimes when I get rebounds, I just like to yell, like ‘somebody get away from me’. I’m not going to say what I actually say," Johnson said, grinning. "It’s just how I motivate myself, I guess. That’s just how I motivate myself out there. I get mad during some parts of the game just to amp myself up to get more rebounds or get a nice dunk or something."

He wasn’t mad at his tweaked back, an injury that forced him to stand up beside the bench when he was out of the game because it was too tight to sit, or at the FSU defenders. Or even at the referees who saddled him with three fouls in the first half (he finished with three).

But he played like it, and Williams, for one, was glad.

"I’m proud of Brice. Brice’s back was bothering him in warmups. I told him I wished it would bother him in warmups all the time if he’s going to get 18 and 14," he joked.

Even though Williams was more positive about his junior big man than he has been, he wasn’t ready to crown him, though. Any sign of progress that might seem encouraging to outsiders just seems to make it that much more frustrating to Williams. And the same goes for sophomore center Kennedy Meeks, an excellent passer and rebounder but one who has a tendency to disappear, too.

"Guys, we’ll see. You guys want me to anoint somebody. … It’s a work in progress every single day. But Brice is getting better. His toughness, I think, today was maybe one of the best games he’s had because he’s hurt. But no, I am not ready to put him or Kennedy with Tyler Hansbrough or John Henson or Tyler Zeller," Williams said at his postgame press conference (thus the "you guys" referring to the media).

"You guys you’ve got a job to do and you can write what you want, but he’s nowhere close to where I think he can be. But it is, every other day you guys are ‘boy, aren’t they doing well’. No they’re not. Their defense stinks. When they start playing great defense, then I’ll anoint them also."

Maybe it’s Williams’ refusal to be satisfied with Johnson that is making him mad. But the source of his anger remains a mystery, even to his teammates. It seems to happen like once a month when he plays like a man possessed, but no one knows why.

"Nobody knows, to be honest," Jackson said. "Brice just — sometimes he’s in another world. But when he gets mad obviously there’s something going on so we all feed off of that energy he has whenever he gets mad. But the way he’s been playing lately, he can stay as mad as he wants.

"You usually don’t know why he reacts or why he yells or anything like that. But when we see that, we know it’s time to go."

3. Florida State’s Xavier Rathan-Mayes was a revelation

The freshman point guard has had to do it all for the Seminoles, particularly after Aaron Thomas went out for the season with an eligibility problem.

It’s been a lot for him to bear, as it would be for most players — not just a freshman. Rathan-Mayes, who missed last year with issues of his own, has come a long way lately, averaging 22.3 points in the last three games — mostly on the strength of his 35 points at North Carolina on 14-of-26 shooting.

That’s tied for the second-most points ever scored against North Carolina in the Smith Center — with Duke’s J.J. Redick and former Maryland star Len Bias. 

That’s pretty good company.

Rathan-Mayes started off the game hot, hitting his first three shots to score a quick seven points in the first 2:12. He cooled off a bit after that — for the final 18 or so minutes of the first and first 10 or so minutes of the second (almost 28 minutes), he was 3-of-10 for eight points.

But in the final 10 minutes, he was 8-of-13 from the field for 19 points and made 3-of-5 three-pointers. And 11 of his points came in the final 35 seconds, single-handedly keeping Florida State within striking distance.

"We held him scoreless or without a field goal for about 4-5 minutes, then all of a sudden the last 30 seconds, he made 3-4 of them in a row," Williams said. "He was a difficult guy for us to guard. Sometimes, he’d come off the screen and a big guy would be there, and the next time, he would refuse the screen and beat the defender back to the basket."

And North Carolina did try everything — switching screens, multiple zone defenses — nothing seemed to work. A few times, switches had him matched up on Meeks which is obviously a mismatch in his favor (and he took advantage). But plenty of times, he was matched up against Tokoto (UNC’s best defender) and sometimes multiple UNC defenders, heavily contesting his shots — he still drained them.

"We knew he was a scorer. A lot of us know him in high school and we’ve seen him play in high school, and that’s pretty much the exact same thing he did in high school. He’s a scorer, he can shoot and he can score in many different ways," Britt said. "He was on tonight. He was hot. I felt like we got a lot of good contests and we could make shots. So there’s really not much we can do."

It’s a good sign for the young and undermanned Seminoles moving forward, though, that’s for sure.

22-21 — In the second half alone, Rathan-Mayes outscored his entire team by himself 22-21. He hit 9-of-15 shots for 22 points while his teammates made just 6-of-17 second-half shots for 21 points. Ten other Seminoles saw playing time.

5 — North Carolina had just five turnovers on the game, and that had been an issue plaguing the Tar Heels for quite some time. It was the fewest turnovers by a team in the Roy Williams era, and the fewest by any North Carolina team since 1997.