Tag Archives: Brice Johnson

UNC limits celebration, hopes for bigger one ahead

HOUSTON — Marcus Paige allowed himself less than a minute — 39 seconds to be precise — to celebrate.

As he, Justin Jackson, Theo Pinson, Brice Johnson and Joel Berry II checked out of Saturday night’s 83-66 national semifinal win against No. 10-seed Syracuse, Paige let himself exhale and take in the surroundings at the NRG Center.

UNC checked off one more item on the to-do list. But there’s still a big one remaining.

“I took about 45 seconds to cherish that moment,” said Paige, who scored 13 points. “When he subbed in our bench and we got to come out, that was the moment of relaxation and celebration for me, hugging my teammates, telling my teammates, ‘Hey we got one more game.’

“Because our ultimate goal is not to make the final game, it’s to win the final game. You’ve got to happy, satisfied with the way you played and to get to this point. But I’m sure it’ll be a lot more fun if we come in here after a win on a Monday night.”

There was, of course, plenty of reason to celebrate for those 39 seconds. The Tar Heels faced off against ACC foe Syracuse (23-14) for the third time this season, and, for the the third time, UNC walked off the court with a victory.

It was a close game, at least compared to Villanova’s earlier 95-51 thrashing of Oklahoma. The Tar Heels struggled to find any separation early as Syracuse’s zone kept them out of an offensive rhythm.

“They were just a little more aggressive in that zone,” Johnson said. “They weren’t allowing us to get it in the middle of the pass. The first possession when I got the jump shot, I don’t think I touched it in the middle again. It was just a little more aggressive with the guards at the top not allowing us to try to get it in there.”

Initially, UNC settled for 3-point shots, a decision that didn’t pan out as they missed all 10 first-half 3-pointers.

But once the inside game got going, the Tar Heels (33-6) began to find some separation and outscored Syracuse 26-12 in the post en route to a 39-28 halftime lead.

UNC went 6 of 19 in the first 10 minutes of the game, including nine missed 3-pointers. But once the Tar Heels started forcing the ball inside, they went 11 of 16 from the floor and missed just one 3-pointer in the final 10 minutes.

That feat was especially impressive given that UNC leading scorer Brice Johnson sat the final 9:05 with two fouls.

Johnson went to the bench with the scored tied at 16, but keyed by buckets from Berry, Meeks, Jackson and Joel James, UNC went on a 10-2 run and stretched out the lead to nine points.

“I’m really proud of those guys for stepping up, especially Joel,” said Johnson, who had 16 points and nine rebounds. “He really hit some big time shots.”

UNC led Syracuse by 11 at half, but thanks to slack rebounding and turnovers by UNC, Syracuse was able to cut it into single digits on a 3-pointer by Malachi Richardson with 9:48 to go in the second half.

Paige then answered with a 3-pointer of his own — UNC’s first of the game — and stretched the lead back to 10 points.

North Carolina guard Marcus Paige (5) shoots a three-pointer during the first half of an NCAA Men's Basketball Championship semifinal game at the NRG Stadium in Houston, TX on Saturday, April 2, 2016. North Carolina beat Syracuse 83-66 to advance to the National Championship. (Christine T. Nguyen/North State Journal)
North Carolina guard Marcus Paige (5) shoots a three-pointer during the first half of an NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship semifinal game at the NRG Stadium in Houston, TX on Saturday, April 2, 2016. North Carolina beat Syracuse 83-66 to advance to the National Championship. (Christine T. Nguyen/North State Journal)

“There’s no question I got really excited because he had done so many good things and hand’t been able to make a shot,” coach Roy Williams said. “That was the first 3 our team made. I got a little excited on the sideline after that.”

But after Paige’s shot dropped, Syracuse senior Trevor Cooney answered with another 3 before Pinson drained UNC’s second triple. From there, UNC never led by fewer than 10 points en route to a national championship date Monday night with No. 2 seed Villanova.

There’s no denying that it was the biggest win of the season thus far. With everything on the line, it was the definition of a must-win game. But a bigger one is on the horizon, one that means there’s no time for an extended celebration.

Saturday night’s game was about business, and if everything goes the way UNC hopes, a much bigger party will come a little bit later.

“I’ve got one more,” Johnson said. “I’m not done. We’re not done as a team and I’m not done as a player. I’ve got one more game in college and I’ve got one more game this season. We’ll go out there and give it our all.”

Marcus Paige keeps it poppin’

HOUSTON — Marcus Paige has been asked a lot of questions in his four years at North Carolina — about his prolific second halfs, his relationship with teammate Brice Johnson, his previous shooting woes and his recent resurgence.

But Thursday morning, I threw him a bit of a curveball during the first day of Final Four availability at the NRG Center and asked about popcorn.

It’s not completely random, I promise.

Leaving a press conference in Chapel Hill before the regional round of the NCAA Tournament in Philadelphia, Paige joked about ties between his home state of Iowa and his love of popcorn.

He might’ve been kidding, but it’s only natural that Paige might like to pop a couple kernels occasionally. Iowa is the top producer of corn in the United States, and according to the state’s agriculture department, Iowa farmers harvested 13.3 million acres of the crop in 2014.

And because I’m a popcorn fanatic, I wanted to know the degree of Paige’s devotion to the snack.

Turns out, he’s a pretty big fan, too.

“My two weaknesses are double-stuffed oreos and popcorn,” Paige said. I don’t know how it started or why.”

Sometimes when he’s sitting in his room in Chapel Hill, Johnson sniffs a smell wafting up through the house he shares with Paige and a couple of their friends.

It’s a strong one that snakes its way through their house frequently, most often late at night.

Johnson shakes his head. It’s just Paige downstairs, popping another bag of Butter Lovers popcorn.

“It’s something I notice all the time,” Johnson said. “Every time I look, he’s got it. Sometimes i’ll be sitting in my room and I’ll just smell butter. And I’m like, I already know who it is. Marcus is eating popcorn. That’s his favorite snack. It’s what he likes to do at night.”

Most of the time he just throws a bag in the microwave and a couple of minutes later: heaven.

But sometimes, Paige switches it up and pulls out a pot, some oil and a bag of kernels for a stovetop special.

“It’s easy to just pop a little butter lovers in the microwave for two minutes,” he said. “When I’m at home, I sometimes make stovetop popcorn.

“My mom (taught me). You just put it on the stove and then it pops. It’s one of the simpler things. I’m not very good at cooking.”

There’s a joke here about Paige’s 3-point cooking on the court being better than his skills in the kitchen, but I’ll spare you.

Nothing but net: Carolina teamwork extends to postgame

They used special scissors with a gold blade, and one after another, the Tar Heels learned what it felt like to cut down the nets that had just taken them to a Final Four.

Most of the coaches knew the feeling. Roy Williams had climbed that ladder before.

“It is really special,” he said. “And that’s the reason I even know how many times we’ve done it. This is my eighth time in 28 years as a head coach.”

Assistant Steve Robinson has been on Williams’ staff for 20 of those 28 years and has strands from seven Regional Finals nets.

Assistant Hubert Davis climbed the ladder in 1991, as a player for the Tar Heels. Sean May had the experience in 2005.

Among the Tar Heels in uniform in Philadelphia on Sunday, only Kennedy Meeks had experienced what it felt like to cut down the second-to-last net of the year. As he took the scissors and trimmed away a piece of the home net, he experienced a sense of déjà vu.

That’s because he’d just done the same thing at the other end of the floor, not five minutes earlier.

The 2015-16 Tar Heels are a loose bunch, crashing press conferences and giggling as they’ve stormed through the postseason. But Meeks wasn’t clowning around as he took a second-helping at the net on Sunday night. Instead, it was the culmination of a selfless player-to-player-to-player hockey assist that would have made Dean Smith proud.

“It wasn’t for me,” Meeks said of the second strand he clipped from the Wells Fargo Center nets. “I got it for Luke. He didn’t get one. So I went and got one for him.”

That would be freshman Luke Maye. The forward didn’t play in the Regional Final win over Notre Dame, but he seemed capable of climbing a ladder on his own. In fact, when the Tar Heels took down the first net, on the visitors’ end of the floor, he was in line several players behind Meeks.

So why didn’t Maye get a turn with the scissors.

“I got to cut a strand,” Maye said.

Clearly, something was fishy around the budding controversy. Just where did the extra strand end up, and why?

Netgate originated two weeks earlier, when the Tar Heels cut down the nets at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., following their ACC Tournament title.

After each member of the team got a piece, the second net hung from a few slim strands. Coach Williams sent his scholarship seniors—Paige, Brice Johnson and Joel James—up the ladder to finish the job.

There was a supply and demand problem: Three seniors and only two nets.

The first net was already around the neck of senior Marcus Paige. A three-year captain, there was no question that Paige would get one.

Johnson and James looked at each other after cutting the second net, but that one was just as much of a no-brainer. The team’s leading scorer and rebounder, Johnson had turned in one of the best seasons in school history. He cut the last strand and wore the net like a necklace.

James was left out. The huge ACC tournament sign that had been mounted to the backboard would have to serve as a substitute for the senior center’s trophy case.

James’ bulky souvenir led to an outbreak of sign stealing, as the Tar Heel players stripped the Verizon Center of any and all ACC Tournament signage, bringing them back to Chapel Hill to divide among themselves.

Last week, in the NCAA opening weekend in Raleigh, James peeled a giant logo sticker from the wall of the PNC Center to join his ACC sign in a collection of oversized signage.

“I’ve been trying to look around and see what I can take,” James said, while sitting in the locker room in Philadelphia.

He pointed to a dog eared decal on the wall that he’d clearly tried to peel away already. “Those sticky signs are a hassle. They ball up and stick to themselves. So I’m not sure what I’ll take yet.”

When the Tar Heels finished off the Fighting Irish to advance to their first Final Four since 2009, James had his chance to get a more manageable memento.

Whoever was in charge of counting strands on the first net and lining up the players accordingly—assuming there was such a person—had a costly miscalculation, however, and James found himself third in line at net number one, which was hanging by just one strand.

Maye was at the head of the line and took the scissors. He started toward the ladder, then turned and offered the scissors to the upperclassman. James deferred, waving Maye toward the basket.

Maye climbed the ladder, but he had no intention of taking down the net. Instead, he clipped away a small strand from the part of the net already hanging free. He held it up for the crowd, then climbed down.

At that point, Coach Williams saw the situation and stepped in to resolve it. He stopped senior walk-on Toby Egbuna, who was next in line, and directed him to hand the scissors to James.

“Let Joel do it,” Williams said, and James climbed the ladder to finally get his net.

joel james cuttingEgbuna was first up the ladder on the other end of the court, getting his strand. That left Maye with a piece of the net far smaller than everyone else’s. Eventually, Meeks noticed the freshman’s bare Final Four hat, because Maye’s strand was too short to tie to the band in back of the hat, as the other players had done.

Maye refused to go up the ladder a second time, but Meeks wasn’t about to let the matter drop. He took it upon himself to cut Maye a strand.

The Tar Heel chain of generosity made sure that everyone got the keepsake they deserved. All the seniors had their nets. Everyone else on the team got a full strand. In typical Carolina fashion, however, getting anyone to take credit for the gesture would be like pulling teeth.

“I got a shorter strand at first, but then I ended up getting one,” Maye said, declining to mention his willingness to sacrifice to get James his net.

“I could care less about the net,” James said, when asked about it. “I was just glad to win the ACC Tournament before. Now, I’m glad to go to the Final Four.”

It turned out that Meeks was the only one willing to point the assist finger, crediting his teammates for their sacrifice and taking a tiny bit of credit for himself.

“I was just being a good friend,” he said.

joel james locker


Brice Johnson rage dunking, blocking Tar Heels to Sweet 16 run

When Brice Johnson is excited, he gets angry.

It’s a frequent sight now during North Carolina games — the All-American big man dunks with authority, then screams in elation to the crowd.  Commonly referred to as a “rage dunk,” Johnson demoralized many defenders throughout this season.

Recently, Johnson has found even more reason to show his rage. Following every massive block, No. 11 stomps and screams at the top of his lungs. After his block against Providence? He put the fear of God into fans and media with his flexing and stank face.

After setting a UNC-record with eight blocks in an NCAA Tournament game against Florida Gulf Coast, Johnson needed just one swat to get the crowd roaring.

While he’s not that way all of the time, Johnson knows when to turn it on. That’s exactly what makes him so critical to the Tar Heels’ ACC and NCAA Tournament runs.

North Carolina forward Brice Johnson (11) reacts after dunking the ball during the first half of an NCAA Tournament college basketball game in Raleigh, North Carolina, Saturday, March 19, 2016. North Carolina beat Providence 85-66. (Christine T. Nguyen/North State Journal)
North Carolina forward Brice Johnson (11) reacts after dunking the ball during the first half of an NCAA Tournament college basketball game in Raleigh, North Carolina, Saturday, March 19, 2016. North Carolina beat Providence 85-66. (Christine T. Nguyen/North State Journal)

“If you were to ask our guys on the team who is the most intense guy, Brice wouldn’t get a vote,” Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “He’s really intense when he blocks the shot that goes into the 12th row. He’s really intense when he dunks and that usually comes because he’s growling so hard. …

“His play on the defensive end of two things — blocking shots and defensive rebounding — have been huge for our basketball team.”

Johnson has come into his own this season, developing from a solid post player last year to an ACC Player of the Year candidate. That growth has taken a UNC team capable of making a run to Houston to a favorite to do so.

For example, scoring 20 points and 10 rebounds seems like child’s play for Johnson now. His 21-10 game against the Friars marked his sixth-such performance this season while making grown men like Ben Bentil look inferior in the post.

“I mean, essentially nobody really heard of him until this year,” Johnson said of Bentil through laughter. “I mean, he’s essentially a guard. He’s a very good player.”

The matchups don’t get any easier for Johnson, who will likely have to face Indiana freshman Thomas Bryant in the Sweet 16. Bryant is coming off a 19-point outing against Kentucky and provides a similar versatility to Bentil in the post — shooting 70 percent or better in both NCAA Tournament games. The frosh made all six shots from inside against the Wildcats, missing only two shots from three-point range.

Williams has shared his fond memories of the 2005 and 2009 national championship teams all season for a reason. This team is capable of mirroring that success, and it starts inside with Johnson.

Whether he’s doing it on the offensive end with a dunk or the defensive end with a massive block, Johnson has a way of electrifying his teammates. Heading to Philadelphia with momentum clearly on their side, Johnson’s play and charisma will continue to be a catalyst for the Heels.


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UNC sees familiar faces in enemy territory

RALEIGH — As the North Carolina men’s basketball team took the court for its open practice Wednesday afternoon, knocking down long shots and acrobatic dunks, fans screamed out to their favorite players.




The fans screaming their adoration were a stark contract to the fans screaming obscenities less than a month earlier as UNC dismantled N.C. State 80-68.

For approximately 360 days out of the year, PNC Arena is enemy territory.

Regardless of UNC’s recent record in the building or the photoshopped images of ‘Paige’NC Arena paying tribute to Marcus Paige’s historical heroics, it’s an away gym, often filled with angry crowds painted in red.

But as the No. 1 seed Tar Heels (28-6) took the court at PNC for Wednesday afternoon’s open practice, the red seats were filled with a light blue usually found about 45 minutes away.

PNC will be home for the week, giving the Tar Heels an advantage they don’t usually find in Raleigh.

“That was kind of a goal of ours to end up in Raleigh, you know right down the street,” Paige said. “To have basically a home crowd our first two games. When they announced we were playing in Raleigh as a one seed, we were all really excited because it’s what we’d been thinking about all year.”

Though the Tar Heels are always visitors at PNC, they’ve had plenty of success on its hardwood. Roy Williams-coached UNC teams are 13-2 in the arena, including an 11-2 record against N.C. State.

Paige has an almost supernatural ability to hit long range shots in the building, knocking down 15 3-pointers in four games — including five in his junior year and seven during his sophomore season.

“I like this place,” Paige said. “I’m comfortable here. Played here a couple of times. So I’m familiar with the environment. As a shooter if you’ve had some success somewhere, you think about it and remember it and use it.”

The arena was only a fraction full for the late afternoon practice, but by Thursday night at 7:20 p.m. against 16-seed Florida Gulf Coast (21-13), it will undoubtedly be a near-mirror image of the Smith Center as UNC fans make the short drive over to the NCAA first and second round host site.

“It’s basically a home game for us,” said Theo Pinson, a Greensboro native. “We get to use that to our advantage. We lost one game at home and we shouldn’t have lost that one. We’re just going to use the home crowd to our advantage.”