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.