Cameron Johnson was in the gym late Friday night putting up two hundred shots in preparation for the tough task ahead.
That extra work paid off on Saturday.
Having already led the team in scoring four times in nine games before facing No. 4 Gonzaga, Johnson poured in a game-high 25 points as he and the No. 12 North Carolina men's basketball team team picked up a statement win at the Smith Center, 103-90, in the first contest between the two universities since the 2017 National Championship game.
"How about the step back right in front of our bench?" head coach Roy Williams asked. "That was a big time shot and I think they cut it to eight, I think Luke made one and then I think when they cut it to eight, I think Cam was the other one, but I'm not sure. But Cam was huge for us."
Johnson's huge performance against the Bulldogs (9-2) was preceded by an offseason of working on his game. After averaging 12.4 points per game in his first season with UNC (8-2), the graduate forward was determined to improve for his last season of eligibility. He wasn't pleased by his shooting during the 2017-2018 season — he called it "poor." So in the summer, he put up shots, in the fall he did the same and he's noticed a change in his demeanor on the floor this season.
"I feel just more comfortable on the court moving around out there," he said. "So, it just takes my mind off of different things and allows me to kind of just move freely."
Johnson got his scoring started against Gonzaga with a 3-pointer to cut the Bulldogs lead to 9-8 early in the opening half. It was the first of many times on the night that Johnson was assertive with the ball in his hands.
He scored 10 more points in the first 20 minutes and led all scorers at the break with 13 points. But it was the basket he converted with 10 minutes and 48 seconds remaining in the half that had UNC fans jumping out of their seats.
With North Carolina holding an eight-point advantage, Johnson got the ball off a blocked shot at the top of the right arc, quickly took a few dribbles and unleashed a vicious two-handed dunk that seemed to encapsulate the statement performance for the forward and his squad as UNC took a 22-12 lead.
“My head was pretty clear," Johnson said regarding the dunk. "I wasn’t really thinking about anything, just kind of planned. Nobody really stopped me. I got the ball and nobody stopped the ball, so I just kept going, kept going, kept going and that’s what happened.”
Johnson wasn’t the only Tar Heel putting up big numbers Saturday. Junior guard Seventh Woods had a career-high 14 points that included eight consecutive points to end the first half to give his team a 53-39 edge at the intermission and sophomore forward Garrison Brooks had a career-high nine rebounds. But it was Johnson who was the leading man, even on a night when Luke Maye became the 78th player wearing a Tar Heel uniform to eclipse the 1,000-point mark, a milestone Johnson accomplished against Texas on Nov. 22.
"He shot the ball great," Maye said. "It was big for us. He's a great player. It was big for us. He's a great friend and really somebody that I enjoy being around."
Just over three minutes into the second half, Gonzaga had cut the lead down to 11 points. Johnson showed off his shooting prowess again, hitting his fourth 3-pointer of the night to extend the lead back to 14 points. He finished the game with six made 3-pointers for the fifth time in his collegiate career.
Later in the half, Johnson ended another Bulldog threat, hitting again from 3-point range to extend a nine-point lead to 12 with 8:30 remaining in the game.
Johnson put an exclamation mark on the night with 5:48 remaining. As the shot clock was winding down, he gathered the ball more than a few feet beyond the left arc and fired a long 3-pointer. The ball sank through the bottom of the net to give North Carolina a 17-point advantage as Gonzaga players watched helplessly, nailing the door shut on the important win for UNC.
"I just shot it," Johnson said. "Just clock running down, you gotta shoot it. Felt like I had been making a couple up to that point, so just let it go."
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