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Johnson, Berry and Going Small Fuels UNC Surge

Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

Through the first ten games of the season, the primary concern for UNC had been on the defensive end. Scoring points had not been an issue. The Tar Heels have failed to break 80 points just twice this season and one of those was a 78 point outing against Wofford. For all the troubles on the defensive end getting stops, the Tar Heels' ability to produce points had not been in question.

That made the first twelve minutes against UCLA a tad unnerving if not bordering on panic. With Kennedy Meeks UNC didn't have great answers on the defensive end for UCLA big man Tony Parker and like many teams that face the Tar Heels, the three point shooting was on the mark early in the game. On the offensive end, UNC could not get on track despite getting good shots. Marcus Paige opened the game with a three pointer then missed his next seven shots. Brice Johnson spent extended minutes on the bench having drawn the ire of Roy Williams leaving the Tar Heels without many offensive options.

The offensive woes eventually led the Tar Heels to trail 23-13 by the second media timeout of the half. UCLA held nominal control of the game over the next four minutes with a 28-19 lead with less than eight minutes remaining in the game.

Then came two significant changes. One was Johnson coming back into the game and immediately going to work against a foul troubled UCLA frontline. Johnson scored 13 of UNC's final 19 points in the half with a big fist pump after making his first basket, an outburst that seemed to signal he was full engaged in the game. Near the end of the half Johnson ran the floor following a missed UCLA three and was rewarded with a pass from Paige for a dunk for UNC's first lead of the game.

In addition to Johnson's effort UNC went to a smaller lineup and ratcheting up the defensive pressure on the perimeter. Theo Pinson was inserted into the game at the four alongside Johnson at the five. Increased pressure in the backcourt along with some classic UNC run and jump turned the game around for the Tar Heels. UNC had six points off turnovers over the final seven minutes and the increased pressure disrupted the UCLA offense enough to allow the Tar Heels to rally.

Having regained its offensive footing with a strong stretch of defense, UNC hit its stride in the second half. The Tar Heels eviscerated the UCLA defense leading to multiple shots at the rim. Through the first eight minutes of the half, UNC scored 8 of 9 times on layups. Joel Berry and Nate Britt tested the Bruin defense over and over in transition. While UCLA managed to hang around, UNC took every advantage of the easy looks afforded by the UCLA defense.

With the game still in doubt, UNC dropped the offensive hammer with a 13-0 run. As UNC closed the game out, Joel Berry more than made up for Marcus Paige's shooting woes. Paige had his first truly off game since returning from a broken hand hitting just 2 of 9 shots. Berry stepped up with nine points over the final seven minutes. The combination of Berry and Johnson on the offensive end turned a sluggish and tight game into a dominant Tar Heel win.

This cannot be underscored enough. Consider this: UNC was playing without Kennedy Meeks against a team with size on the interior. This required heavy minutes from Joel James and Luke Maye who at times struggled on defense. Paige also struggled missing seven straight shots in between threes at the beginning and near the end of the game. Despite being hamstrung by injury and flailing offensively for most of the first half, UNC ultimately found a groove ti outpace the Bruins. Roy Williams opting for a small lineup served as a catalyst and the Tar Heels head back to Chapel Hill having notched a key neutral court win versus a likely NCAA Tournament team.