SAN ANTONIO — Before the time of North Carolina’s date with No. 3 seed Iowa State was set, news of Cyclones forward Georges Niang’s fractured foot dominated headlines Friday night.
It was a shocking season-ending injury that seemingly reduced Iowa State’s chances of making the Sweet Sixteen.
But with fewer than four minutes gone in Sunday evening’s game, another injury, this one to a player in Carolina Blue, changed the course of UNC’s 85-83 NCAA Tournament third round loss to Iowa State (28-7).
With fewer than 15 minutes to play in the first half, sophomore Brice Johnson leapt up to rebound a missed UNC (24-10) shot. As he landed, he hit the top of Cyclone forward Dustin Hogue’s shoe; his foot went one way, his ankle another.
Johnson corralled the rebound and passed it out to Marcus Paige, hopping up and down on his left foot to avoid putting weight on his injured right. After Leslie McDonald drained a 3-pointer, Johnson tried to run the length of the floor with his teammates, but he simply couldn’t stay in the game. When play ended under Iowa State’s basket, Johnson hobbled across the baseline in front of athletic trainer Doug Halverson and collapsed to his knees.
As coach Roy Williams and Halverson went over to check on him, Johnson banged his left foot against the hardwood in pain. He gingerly started to get up move toward the bench. The 6-foot-9 forward was moving slowly, grimacing with every ounce of weight he put on his right ankle.
Johnson eventually limped back to the locker room with Halverson.
Diagnosed with a sprained ankle, he wouldn’t return — his impact in the year’s last game limited to two points, two rebounds, one foul in two minutes.
“It was tough,” McDonald said. “We were expecting big things out of Brice. He contributes to the offensive board and defensive boards and scoring, too. We were looking for big things.
“But things happen. He got injured, but that just motivated other guys on the team to step up big time.”
Johnson’s early exit was just the first of many seemingly cruel endings for the No. 6-seeded Tar Heels Sunday night.
With Johnson out of the game, the Tar Heels were left without an emotional leader and crucial interior threat.
Though Kennedy Meeks stepped up big for the Tar Heels, notching only his second double-double of the career with 15 points and 13 rebounds, also, in a season-high 31 minutes, UNC lacked Johnson’s length around the rim.
“To be honest with you, Brice is not a great defensive player by any means, but boy, protects things around the rim and blocks a lot of shots around the rim,” Williams said. “We didn’t have that possibility out there today.”
With Johnson relegated to the end of the bench, Williams was forced to use some unconventional lineups and shift his players into unfamiliar positions for long stretches of time.
“As coaches, it’s hard to lose a guy within the game because then you have to make changes on the fly,” he said.
Johnson’s absence in the game neutralized UNC’s edge off the bench, reducing the Tar Heels to only six points from non-starters.
Johnson’s game-ending injury wasn’t the sole reason for UNC’s loss, but it only added to the ever-growing list of what-ifs that defined North Carolina’s season.
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