COLUMBUS, OHIO — When Cameron Johnson walked off the Nationwide Arena court in Columbus, Ohio, to the locker room at halftime, top-seeded North Carolina was losing to No. 16 seed Iona, 38-33. He had 20 minutes to extend his collegiate career.
A blistering 3-point shooting performance (10-21) from Iona had the Gaels on top of the Tar Heels. Johnson had a mere five points on 2-7 shooting. The way it was playing, UNC was in serious danger of an historic early exit.
Johnson put the stakes out of his mind.
“Man, you can’t think like that...I feel like if we were to get to two minutes and we were still down maybe five to 10 points, then I probably would have thought about it," the graduate guard said. “You can’t think that way at halftime, you’ve got to get ready and come back out there firing.”
So in the locker room, head coach Roy Williams drew up a play for Johnson to come out firing on the first possession of the second half. His team executed it to a T, and found Johnson wide open in the corner to do what he does best — knock down a three.
“Kenny set a great screen, Coby set a great pass, and I just had to stick that one, to make sure it fell and it did, and it set us off on a great foot,” Johnson said.
That play sparked North Carolina’s offensive turnaround. The Tar Heels (28-6) went on a 25-7 run to start the half and take control of the game back from the Gaels (17-16) in a game UNC would ultimately win, 88-73. That run included the triple from Johnson, a layup two minute laters and another corner three that put UNC up 11. Johnson’s shots marked the moments when North Carolina began to pull away from the Gaels.
“Second half, Cam makes a big three the first possession, and all of a sudden we have a little more energy and passion about what we were doing defensively,” Roy Williams said.
Yet the confidence that the Tar Heels began to exude was visibly absent in the first half. North Carolina struggled in transition, couldn’t finish inside and were unable to stop Iona from 3-point range. The Gaels hit 15 threes against UNC, the most ever in an NCAA Tournament game against the Tar Heels, and 10 of those came in the first half.
The wave of 3-pointers left UNC taken aback. It didn’t come out of the gate ready for the fight Iona put up.
“It did make us take a step back because, when they’re hitting threes like that and taking up so much clock it throws us out of our rhythm,” Johnson said. "We were a little flustered on the offensive end.”
UNC looked lethargic, and it needed a jolt of energy.
“The biggest play of the game, I think was the three he hit the second half,” said first-year Nassir Little, who threw in 19 points of his own. “...From there we just had this new energy and passion. I think that one play won us the game.”
North Carolina’s turnaround mirrored Johnson’s own. Johnson finished the first half with only five points on 2-7 shooting. Yet he finished the game with 21 points on 7-13 shooting after a nearly perfect 5-6 second half.
The second-half turnaround kept Johnson’s season — and career — alive. He knows the importance of getting that first NCAA Tournament win, and is already looking ahead to the next opponent: No. 9 seed Washington.
“You don’t want to go down, come into the half down,” he said. “...We wanted to give ourselves another opportunity to play on Sunday, and that’s what we did.”
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