Going into North Carolina’s Wednesday matchup against Tulane, Brice Johnson had plenty of reason to be motivated.
The team was just four days separated from a loss to an unranked opponent — the type of loss UNC basketball generally isn’t accustomed to. In that defeat, Johnson played only five first-half minutes after picking up three early fouls.
Just a couple of days after the setback at Texas, the school announced that center Kennedy Meeks was expected to miss at least two weeks with a knee injury. Not only were the Tar Heels desperately in need of a bounce-back victory, but they needed to find answers in the frontcourt.
The spotlight shifted to Johnson. And in UNC’s contest against the Green Wave, the senior embraced that spotlight.
Johnson was brilliant on Wednesday from start to finish. In leading his squad to a 96-72 victory, he scored a career-high 25 points and pulled down 10 boards, good for his sixth double-double of the season.
“We didn’t want to lose the way we did (against Texas), and it was very heartbreaking, so we just wanted to come out and just play the best game that we possibly can,” Johnson said.
Individually it was one of the best games the Orangeburg, South Carolina, native has ever played in a Tar Heel uniform. He finished with 11 field goals on 17 attempts, and four of those were electrifying dunks that energized his teammates along with the 16,199 fans in attendance at the Dean E. Smith Center.
While Johnson’s scoring provided a major spark for UNC, which led by double digits for almost the entire night, point guard Marcus Paige noticed the big man making a considerable impact in another area as well.
“He was more attentive to hitting the offensive glass,” Paige stated. “He was crashing the boards every time, and that was a big point of emphasis for us. We only had four second-chance points against Texas, so I think he did take it upon himself a little bit to try to get on the boards and be more aggressive.”
Head coach Roy Williams was also pleased with Johnson’s efforts on the boards.
“I think for a while there tonight, he was really a man on the backboards,” Williams said of his power forward. “He got several offensive rebounds in a crowd, and we needed him to do that.”
After finding himself in foul trouble against the Longhorns on Saturday, Johnson avoided falling into the same trap against Tulane. He went into halftime with only one foul, allowing his coach to keep him on the floor.
“My biggest goal today was just to play harder and to stay out of foul trouble just so I could be able to stay in the game,” Johnson said. “I did what I wanted to do, and especially with Kennedy being out, I knew that I’d have to play a little bit more.”
Facing adversity, Johnson’s team needed him to have a productive outing on Wednesday night. The senior turned that adversity into motivation, and it resulted in a Tar Heel victory.