UNC holds off No. 25 Pitt
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — With a little over two seconds remaining, Brice Johnson walked to the free throw line with his team up by three.
The Smith Center crowd fell quiet. And he heard a very distinct voice above the silence shout "BEND YOUR KNEES!"
It was his father.
"I was like, ‘Why do I hear him right now?’" Johnson said, shaking his head at the memory. "I was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to use my legs. I hear him. I’m not going to act like I don’t him, because he knows I hear him. So I’m going to shoot it right and make it."
So he did it. He bent his knees. But the free throw missed.
Pressure factor: increased.
As did the nerves in the building.
A mostly pro-UNC crowd — which was neatly striped throughout due to a "Stripe Out" promotion — knows this team well, and it knows that this team is almost historically bad at shooting free throws.
When UNC lets a late lead slip away and anyone other than point guard Marcus Paige (who is shooting 90.7 percent from the line) toes the foul line, the crowd is almost anticipating a miss.
Since UNC shot 8-of-15 from the line in the second half, that seemed like a reasonable assumption.
Johnson could feel it. It’s palpable.
"I feel it sometimes … especially after I missed the first one," Johnson said. "I was like, ‘Please, let me make the second one. I need the second one. I need this for myself. I need this right now. We need this. I need to make this one.’"
The Tar Heels had seen an 11-point second half lead evaporate, and then a seven-point lead with 55 seconds to go get chopped down to three points by a pesky Pitt team that did not go away.
A deep knee bend and proper follow-through later, Johnson made the second free throw giving him a 7-of-10 performance from the line AND his team a four-point lead, which ultimately stood up as the Tar Heels won, 75-71.
But Johnson did a lot more than that to help North Carolina (17-7, 7-4 ACC) win its sixth straight game — easily its toughest during the streak, too — over No. 25 Pittsburgh (20-6, 8-5 ACC).
On a day when James Michael McAdoo and Paige combined for 42 of the Tar Heels’ 75 points, he provided what UNC hasn’t always had — a third option.
Not just with his offense, which was good — he had 13 points — because Johnson has always been able to score. He scores so well and so efficiently that fans have often complained Johnson doesn’t play more.
His head coach Roy Williams answered that question without being asked after the game, instead talking about his team’s newfound sense of urgency during this six-game winning streak.
"There was one loose ball and Brice dove for the ball, and he didn’t trip — he really, actually dove for it," Williams said jokingly.
Johnson smiled when told of his coach’s comments, and shook his head.
"I can dive for the ball sometimes. Sometimes I don’t dive with certain people. In practice, I don’t dive with Jackson (Simmons) because I know Jackson’s going to end up with it, because Jackson goes really hard when it’s time to dive for the ball. He goes headfirst," Johnson said.
"Sometimes you’ve got to think to yourself, are you going to get (the loose ball) or not? Sometimes you’re like, yeah, I’m going to go ahead and take it from him. That one I was like, yeah, I have to get this one. It’s just laying there. I had to go get it."
That sums up both Johnson and this Tar Heel team, really. Great wins — this is UNC’s fourth win over a top-25 team this year — and head-scratching losses, like at home to Belmont and at UAB.
It took UNC’s lithe 6-foot-9 sophomore forward over a year, he said, to get his first positive defensive grade. The UNC coaches grade game film and count the number of good plays on defense against the number of bad plays. Getting a positive grade isn’t all that uncommon. But it was for Johnson.
Since he got that positive grade, which came towards the end of non-conference play, Johnson hasn’t gotten a negative one since.
He ended the Pittsburgh game, though, with seven rebounds and five blocks.
So what’s different?
"Playing defense, man," Johnson said. "Trying to not be that defensive liability."
Well, all right then.
UNC thought it could have been on a seven-game win streak with two straight wins over top-25 teams. The Tar Heels were supposed to play No. 8 Duke at home, and a winter storm meant that the only fans in attendance would likely be UNC students rather than the typical Smith Center crowd that’s a little more … subdued.
The weather and resulting gridlock on the major roads in the area meant there was no way for Duke to get eight miles to Chapel Hill. Well, not without walking.
The team found out at about 6:00 p.m. officially the game wasn’t happening. Johnson called it "heartbreaking".
"All of us were really ready to play them, and just knowing that there was going to be a lot of students in here, we were extremely ready for that," Johnson said. "We just had to let it go and know that we’re going to play them next week. We had to get ready for our next opponent, and that was Pitt."
So what did the Tar Heels do instead?
Some of them went home. Not Johnson.
It would have been easy to forget that Johnson is still, essentially, a kid — 19 years old, in fact — when he was standing on the foul line with the oppressive weight of a nervous Smith Center crowd bearing down on him.
When asked what he did after the Duke game was cancelled on Wednesday, though, it was a good reminder.
"I went out and played in the snow," Johnson said. "Come on, man. I’m 19 years old, man. I had to go play in the snow. I don’t see it very often. I had to go do it. We had to go throw some snowballs at people."