The last time the Pittsburgh men’s basketball team came to Chapel Hill was Jan. 31, 2017. In that game, Cameron Johnson scored 24 points for the Panthers as North Carolina edged out an 80-78 win.
What a difference a year makes.
On Saturday night, No. 19 UNC (17-7, 6-5 ACC) breezed past Pittsburgh (8-16, 0-11 ACC) in a 96-65 win to break its three-game losing streak.
This year, however, Johnson was sporting a lighter shade of blue.
After graduating from Pittsburgh in three years this past spring, Johnson announced his intention to transfer to UNC. But Pittsburgh’s graduate transfer policy prohibited transfers from being immediately eligible to play at another ACC school or any other non-ACC school on the team’s schedule.
With two years left of eligibility to play, Pittsburgh wanted Johnson to sit out for a full year at UNC.Amid controversy, the school released Johnson to play for the Tar Heels at the beginning of last June.
After coming off a career-high 32 points against Clemson on Tuesday night, the stage was set for Johnson to take on his former team.
“He’s been shooting the ball well,” head coach Roy Williams said. “I told him to pretend that it's just another game, because that is what it is.”
A minute and a half into the game, Johnson was fouled and made one free throw to put himself on the board. Then, with a little over nine minutes remaining, Johnson made his presence known with a dunk to put UNC up one point, 20-19.
His best stretch came within the three-minute mark, when he scored eight consecutive points for the Tar Heels in 48 seconds. They came off a 3-pointer, an old-fashioned three-point play and a wide-open layup. In large part due to Johnson’s quick eight points, the Tar Heels ended the first half on a 14-3 run and a 45-35 lead.
After Johnson came to life at the end of the first half, he hit another layup and one free throw in the second half. He finished with 14 points on 5-14 shooting (1-7 from three).
In the postgame press conference, Pittsburgh head coach Kevin Stallings was asked if there were any emotions from seeing "Cam" on the court in a new uniform. Stallings deflected the question about his former player and instead talked about Pittsburgh guard Khameron Davis’ performance.
When asked directly about Johnson, Stallings replied, “I don’t like to talk about other people’s players. Ask Roy about how he played because I couldn’t tell you. I was worried about my guys.”
Johnson’s opinions, on the other hand, were a whole different story.
“There’s no hard feelings,” Johnson said. “If I was a coach, I wouldn’t necessarily want my player to leave either. I don’t think Coach Stallings was trying to punish me for doing anything, but they were just kind of sticking to their ways. I don’t have anything but respect for the University of Pittsburgh.”
Perhaps Stallings' postgame comments were made out of frustration, since the Panthers have yet to win an ACC game in 11 tries.
One thing is for sure: UNC has benefitted from having Johnson on its roster this season. He's averaging 12.8 points and is shooting 43.3 percent from the field in 13 games. And his play, which kicked off the team’s 14-3 run heading into halftime, proved his value.
“A basketball game is a basketball game," Johnson said, "so I just tried to come out and play with energy and help my team in any way.”