“It was really dumb on my part to put my teammates in a situation like that,” Johnson said after the game. “Being a leader on this team, I don’t want to do that and have myself not be in the game and hurting them at the same time by getting the tech.”
Johnson put the top-seeded Tar Heels in that situation after leading them to a 43-38 edge in the first half. He led UNC with 15 points by showing the ability to hit mid-range and elbow jumpers — an aspect of his game that’s often overlooked by his ability to score in the post and paint.
He had also hauled in eight rebounds to help give his team a 13-7 edge on the glass at halftime.
But with just over 13 minutes left in the second half, with Kennedy Meeks’ single-handed 8-0 run essentially thrown out the window, with the Tar Heels losing in a lose-and-go-home game, Johnson did not have his team in the right situation.
“I saw the whole thing happen and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh,’” said senior point guard Marcus Paige. “The part that hurt us was it erased the 11-point lead that we had.
“So we knew we had to come back together. I tried telling the guys it’s a game of runs, you know, they’re trying to get there too. It’s not like they’re just going to fold.”
After his typical 2016 Brice Johnson effort in the first half, the senior forward was looking more like a 2012 or 2013 version to this point in the second. He had just one rebound and a turnover during the first seven minutes of the second half.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say he was folding.
“We had no choice but to keep playing,” Paige said. “I kept telling the guys, ‘It’s a long game.’
“We had all the time in the world to just play better.”
Johnson didn’t have all the time in the world when he was finally subbed back in — just eight minutes and five seconds.
So what did he do?
He made three of his final four shots — more jumpers — scored 10 points, grabbed three rebounds and added a block, for good measure. He recorded his 23rd double-double of the season, becoming the first player in UNC history to accomplish the feat. He became the NCAA Tournament East Region’s Most Outstanding Player.
He didn’t fold. His play in the closing minutes of the game helped solidify UNC’s 88-74 victory and ensure a trip to Houston for the achievement of one of the primary goals this team has had all season: a trip to the Final Four.
“Brice Johnson — can he just miss one?” asked Notre Dame coach Mike Brey after Johnson’s 25-point, 12-rebound game sent his team back to South Bend, Ind. “Can he just help us a little bit?
“But I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced that.”
And after the game, as players and coaches and managers and fans alike celebrated the victory and sang the alma mater — at that moment, angry Brice was nowhere to be found.