Tar Heels eliminate Spiders

Career days from Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige push UNC to tournament final.

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Brice Johnson (11) scored a career-high 24 points against Richmond on Saturday. The Tar Heels will take on defending national champion Louisville in the Hall of Fame Tip-off Tournament Sunday at 1 p.m. on ESPN.

UNCASVILLE, Conn. — With just under a minute to play in No. 24 North Carolina’s 82-72 win against Richmond, sophomore forward Brice Johnson slammed his hands in frustration on the scorer’s table.

Seconds earlier, UNC (3-1) held a 12-point lead against the Spiders (3-2), but a casual inbounds pass by Johnson was intercepted by Richmond’s Wayne Sparrow and was quickly converted to a layup, cutting the lead to 10.

Coach Roy Williams chided his sophomore forward to “leave that play alone — it’s gone.”

But Johnson couldn’t let the poor pass go — the stormy look on his face conveyed as much, and the slam on the table gave his emotions a physical form.

“I’ve been doing that since high school,” Johnson said. “Since I can remember, I’ve always been a hot head. I get frustrated with myself and I have to hit something … I just had to hit something instead of hitting somebody.”

Even in the 6-foot-9 big man’s career day in the semifinal game of the Hall of Fame Tip-off Tournament, lapses in his decision-making came in spurts, something Williams said Johnson needs to work on.

“If you mix (24) and 12 and you make 1,000 mistakes, think how good you’d be if you didn’t make 1,000 mistakes,” Williams said. “We’re asking him to do a lot of things, but he just made casual pass when the other team’s pressing and it turns into a layup for them, you’ve got to learn from that.

“He has some gifts to put the ball in the basket, but he’s got to play with more intensity and play with more intelligence down the stretch.”

Save for the cloud of dejection that hung over Johnson’s head after a misstep, the South Carolina native was responsible for energizing the Tar Heels at crucial times during the 10-point win.

“He’s very emotional on the court, whether it’s highs or lows,” said point guard Marcus Paige who led the Tar Heels with a career-high 26 points. “We’re trying to get him to play with a little more poise when he makes a mistake, not let that affect him the next play. But when he makes a couple good plays in a row, you can tell.

“It’s obvious how much it affects the team in a positive way. He starts flexing and the whole team gets a little more energy.”

Late in the first half as UNC trailed the Spiders by three, Johnson connected on a shot by Richmond’s Kendall Anthony, swatting the ball off its trajectory and off the court.

On the Spiders’ next possession, Johnson corralled a ball blocked by Paige and passed it out of the post. He sprinted down sideline and caught an outlet pass from Jackson Simmons under the goal, hesitating before jamming it through the hoop to tie the game at 33 with less than two minutes to go in the half.

“I like the toughness of our team at the end of the first half because things weren’t going that well,” Williams said. “We made a pretty nice run the last five or six minutes of the first half … Marcus and Brice certainly gave us something we needed offensively.”

Johnson came off the bench to record his first career double-double, scoring a career-high 24 points on an 8-of-15 performance from the floor and grabbing 12 rebounds. Paige added a career and game-high 26 points and hit a career-high six 3-pointers.

Johnson’s new career high replaces his old record of 16 points scored against Chaminade in the Maui Invitational last season. A sometimes streaky scorer last season, Johnson has shown improvement already this season, netting double figures in each of UNC’s four games and averaging 15 points per game.

Johnson reached double figures only nine times in his freshman campaign and never hit that mark in the last 21 games of the season.

“He’s always been able to score around the basket, but we’re seeing him get a little more aggressive and demand the ball a little bit more, make better decisions,” Paige said. “Last year if he caught it, posting up 15-feet away from the basket, he still just turn and shoot it.

“This year he has better feel for the game and he’s starting to compete harder on the defensive end, which is what we really needed him to do.”

Part of competing harder at center comes with a 20-pound offseason weight gain that has helped anchor Johnson in the post through UNC’s early season games.

“I might not be able to guard the biggest guy, but I’ve put on a little bit of weight and strength so I can hold my own instead of pushing around at 187 last year,” Johnson said. “I mean I’m 210 now so people can’t just push me around like they did last year.”

The combination of Johnson and McAdoo in the post along with J.P. Tokoto at the small forward, and Paige and Nate Britt in the backcourt produced arguably the most potent Tar Heel lineup.

Though Williams started out the season seesawing between Joel James and Kennedy Meeks playing alongside McAdoo on the blocks, Johnson’s performance makes him a good candidate for increased playing time in tomorrow’s tournament final against No. 3 Louisville at 1 p.m. — and the rest of the season.

“If Brice plays what he did tonight, he’s going to be on the floor a lot,” Paige said. “He was rebounding, he was a little bit more active on the defensive end than he has been. He had a couple of mental lapses but he did a good job of fighting through that and finishing the game strong. If he gives us that kind of production, we want him on the court.”

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