So said Roy Williams in the aftermath of Brice Johnson's 39 point, 23 rebound career night against Florida State. Johnson
The trajectory of Brice Johnson's career has always been an interesting one. He shows up in Chapel Hill less than 200 pounds but with plenty of bounce. His focus, work ethic and intensity have made for a four year long battle between the big man and his coach regarding those very areas. When engaged Johnson can be a monster. He has the size, athleticism and shooting touch to dominate the post. At the same time he's prone to silly fouls and getting his head out of the game when everything isn't going his way. This season has seen Johnson improve across the board. His focus has generally been better and he's done a much better job keeping himself out of foul trouble and in the game. Johnson had three straight 20+ point plus games after Kennedy Meeks went out with a bone bruise including hitting 16 straight shots over two games, 11 of them versus UCLA.
As much as Johnson has stepped up his game I don't know if anyone saw this kind of performance coming.
Except maybe Brice Johnson himself.
As Carolina was closing out its 96-63 win over UNCG, Johnson exited the game and stopped to talk to Roy Williams at the bench. He pointed up to the video board which showed he had 16 point and 16 rebounds. Johnson said afterwards he wanted to stay in and get 20 rebounds because he had never done that. Little did he or anyone knows, he only needed to wait a week to get to that 20 rebound mark.
The real surprise here is Johnson did it against a sizable frontline. Getting a high rebounding total against the likes of UNC Greensboro or ECU last season is one thing. Johnson has distinct athletic and size advantages on teams like that. In some ways simply showing up is enough given the talent gap. FSU with a pair of seven footers is a different story. While it could be argued FSU's big men don't quite play up to their size, they still present a formidable challenge for Johnson on the interior. If Johnson was going to have a big night, he would have to work for it.
And work he did, hitting his most productive stretch when UNC was in dire need of a spark. The Tar Heels had suffered a scoring drought to close the first half and struggled to stop FSU from scoring with Xavier Rathan-Mayes drilling six threes in a little over a half of work. The Seminoles erased a 14 point first half lead to take a one point lead early in the second half. UNC needed someone to step up and Johnson answered the call.
After Marcus Paige who had a "quiet" 30 points hit two technical free throws to give UNC the lead back, Johnson went to work. First it was a dunk off a Nate Britt drive and dish. The next trip down Johnson putback a Theo Pinson missed and drew a foul for the three point play. After making one of two free throws Johnson again grabbed an offensive rebound for a putback and foul for his second three point play in a one minute span. A third offensive rebound led to another putback and completed a personal 11 point run by the Tar Heel big man. Justin Jackson's layup made it an eight point game at the under 12 minutes timeout.
While Johnson's gaudy offensive numbers will get much of the attention, his defensive work was as good as its been all season. He finished the game with three blocks and three steals. Following one of his blocks he channeled his inner Kennedy Meeks and threw a full court pass to a streaking Paige for a layup. Later in the half, Johnson blocked a shot then stripped Boris Bojanovsky after he secured the rebound. More impressively Johnson did all of this while committing just three fouls and never being in real foul trouble.
For a program with UNC's long and glorious history, putting up a performance that puts a current player in the rarefied air of players with numbers in the rafters is special indeed. According to UNC the only other Tar Heel to record at least 39 points and 23 rebounds in the same game is Billy Cunningham who did it twice.
Cunningham had 48 and 25 vs Tulane on 12/10/64 and 40 and 28 vs. Maryland on 1/13/64.— Carolina Basketball (@UNC_Basketball) January 5, 2016
In recent history UNC has seen the Sean May 20/20 type of games or Tyler Hansbrough going for 40 points as a freshman. Those games were prolific in their own right but what Johnson did in Tallahassee on Monday night was on a once in a generation historical level in a program that has seen some of the greatest players in basketball history pass through its doors.
Roy Williams has consistently stated over the past two seasons that he is constantly pushing Brice Johnson to be a better player. At times it felt like Williams could never be satisfied or perhaps he was being too hard on Johnson. As it turns out, Williams pushed Brice Johnson for a reason. He knew the potential was there and if Johnson ever fulfilled it in a meaningful way, he could be a very good basketball player.
Monday night in Tallahassee we perhaps saw just how good Johnson could be.