SAN ANTONIO — Before Carson Desrosiers' fifth foul, before James Michael McAdoo's game-winning free throw, before McAdoo grabbed the offensive rebound to seal the 79-77 win, there was Brice Johnson.
There were a mere 37 seconds left on the clock in a tied game when Providence's LaDontae Henton drove the lane and extended to lay in a shot.
The ball rolled off the rim and careened toward Johnson and Providence big man Carson Desrosiers as they jostled for position underneath the net.
Johnson blocked Desrosiers out on the left side of the goal just in time for the ball to drop into his hands. Johnson bobbled the ball, nearly letting it escape across the baseline and back into the Friars' possession.
But instead of committing perhaps the most egregious turnover of the night, Johnson corralled the ball and gave it up to Marcus Paige, setting up UNC's final possession in the 79-77 NCAA Tournament second-round win Friday night.
It was a hustle play that might get lost in highlight reels dominated by McAdoo's free throws and J.P. Tokoto's twinkle-toe moves, but it was key in overcoming a resurgent Providence team.
"I just had to get the ball," said Johnson, who finished with 16 points. "I was just trying to get us an extra possession, some way, some how. I was trying to block it and keep it in bounds.
"I just wanted to be able to give my teammates another chance to score and another chance to win."
It's only fitting that one of the most crucial plays of the game was a rebound.
Leading up to UNC's tangle with the Friars, Roy Williams emphasized the importance of dominating the boards after being demolished by Pittsburgh in the ACC Tournament. It was one of three keys that Williams scrawled on the whiteboard in the team's locker room along with 'run' and 'compete.'
Williams' instructions left a lasting impression on the Tar Heels as they ripped down 40 rebounds, more than half of them coming on the offensive glass and leading to 26 second-chance points.
Johnson contributed eight rebounds, four of them on the offensive end.
"It was just in practice, coach getting on us every day about getting to the glass and being able to get second-chance points and not allowing the other team to get second-chance points," Johnson said.
"We could have converted on (the offensive rebounds) a little bit more, but we still hit the glass harder than we have been in the past couple of games."
In addition to his rebounds, Johnson also swatted away four Providence shots, including two in the final 3:13.
As the game was tied at 74 with fewer than two minutes to play, Providence phenom Bryce Cotton, who finished with 36 points, missed a 3-pointer.
Henton grabbed the offensive board and immediately went back up for the follow shot. But Johnson was in his path and as Henton elevated, so did Johnson. As the ball left Henton's hands, Johnson's perfectly timed swat redirected the ball away from the basket.
"His length around the rim is great on the offensive end," Tokoto said. "He gets tip-ins, gets dunks, he gets game-winning blocks.
"If he didn't have those two blocks and they scored, the game would have been different. He's a big part of this team moving on."
After watching Cincinnati fall to Harvard Thursday and Mercer knock off Duke earlier in the day, there was only one thought motivating Johnson through the final minutes, one giant carrot dangling in front of his face as he ripped down rebounds and punched balls away from the rim.
"I wanted to win," Johnson said. "That's just me. I was sick of losing. I wasn't trying to go home. I'm trying to play.
"Just knowing that there's a bunch of upsets, I'm trying to keep playing. I don't want to be one of those teams that got upset, I want to keep winning and keep going on."
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