RALEIGH, N.C. — In a sea of voices, Puff Johnson could hardly pick out one in particular.
“Stay ready,” they murmured from all directions of PNC Arena’s visitor’s locker room.
Once senior wing Leaky Black slowly dropped to the floor with a hyperextended right knee late in the first half of the North Carolina men’s basketball game against N.C. State Saturday, an opportunity opened up for the seldom-used sophomore. Even after Johnson chipped in four points in the opening period, his coaches and teammates knew there was another level he could get to.
As it turns out, there might have been a dozen of them.
In the second half, Johnson scored 12 of his career-high 16 points and played 17 big minutes to help the Tar Heels coast to an easy 84-74 win over their rivals.
“Coach Davis always tells us that practice will lead to play, and I feel like my practice has been leading to what I’ve been doing on the court with bringing energy, effort and toughness,” Johnson said.
For a player that had never scored more than eight points in a single game for the entirety of his college career, Saturday’s renaissance didn’t come without growing pains.
On one possession early in the second half, Johnson found himself wide open for a dunk before N.C. State’s Ebenezer Dowuona flashed late from the weak side to pin him at the rim and knock him to the hardwood. He then leapt to his feet and got back on defense.
Just a few moments later, he caught the ball in transition, blew by his defender and threw down a two-handed jam – his first field goal of the night. Minutes after that, with the defense sagging off, Johnson ripped the net with back-to-back triples to extend the Tar Heels’ already sizable lead.
“It felt great (to hit those shots) because I felt my rhythm again and my groove again,” Johnson said. “When I let go of both of them I knew they were going in, so it’s just my confidence coming back.”
Since arriving to Chapel Hill as a highly-touted four-star recruit, the offensive versatility has never been a question for the 6-foot-8 sophomore. Instead, injuries and defensive concerns have been the primary factor in keeping him off the floor.
But when it was announced that Black, the team’s best defender, would not return to the game, Johnson became one of the Tar Heels’ primary perimeter stoppers, helping to hold the Wolfpack to just under 38 percent shooting.
“He has tremendous length, so I thought he did a tremendous job contesting shots and defensively guarding N.C. State’s wing players,” head coach Hubert Davis said. “He got an opportunity tonight and he made the most of it.”
On the surface, Johnson’s calm demeanor seems unimposing. Rather than relishing in the praise that came his way at the postgame press table, he cited the close relationships he holds with his family and his faith.
But behind the scenes, his teammates notice a different specimen — one that fights and competes with a flame, a flame the college basketball world saw on Saturday.
“In practice, we’ve got to tell him to chill out a little bit because he’ll play so aggressive and get some tick-tack fouls just like me,” senior forward Armando Bacot said. “I’m just proud of him and how he played.”
Even after this breakout performance, Johnson’s role is likely still undetermined. Barring anything unforeseen, Black’s injury isn’t expected to keep him out of the lineup for long and could potentially play on Monday against Syracuse.
But as the Tar Heels inch their way closer to firmly solidifying a spot in the NCAA Tournament field — and depth being as important as ever — it's clear that at least one player heard Davis' important message.
“Just because your opportunity might not come doesn’t give you an excuse not to stay ready, because you never know what day might be your day to play,” Johnson said.
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