RALEIGH – As members of the media formed around his teammates in the North Carolina locker room, Tar Heels senior forward Brice Johnson walked away from his locker, jokingly saying “I didn’t do anything, nobody wants to talk to me.”
He was wrong in that he didn’t do anything – he finished with a team-high 22 points and 11 rebounds. And if nobody in the locker room wanted to talk to him, in the press conference room on the other side of the PNC Arena, somebody did plenty of talking about him.
The Tar Heels defeated rival North Carolina State 80-68 Wednesday night. In the past, Carolina point-guard Marcus Paige was the Wolfpack killer. This time around Brice Johnson took that role. Johnson had his 17th double-double of the season and was virtually unstoppable in the second half. He scored just eight points in the first 20 minutes, but did whatever he wanted against the Pack’s frontcourt after halftime.
NCSU coach Mark Gottfried took notice.
“I thought in the second half Brice Johnson was terrific,” Gottfried said.
Johnson’s 22 points was his highest point total against the Wolfpack in his career. His previous high was 10, which he had done three times against the Pack.
Earlier this week Gottfried singled out Johnson when scouting the Heels, saying he was “playing like a senior.”
Gottfried elaborated on that after the game.
“I thought Brice was the key, he was the difference,” Gottfried said.
Gottfried, who recruited Johnson to NCSU, went onto say so many college players get a bad rap for staying in school four years, saying “they think it’s a negative to be a senior.”
In the era of one-and-done players, seniors are certainly a rarity. Players can stay too long and watch their NBA stock drop. Johnson might be the complete opposite. After his junior season he was considered a mid-second round pick. According to nbadraftnet, Johnson is now a Top 10 pick – one of only two seniors in the lottery.
UNC coach Roy Williams might be the only coach remaining in America who recruits guys to actually stay four years, shying away from the one-and-done types. While some guys coming and leaving early have backfired, sticking around has worked out well for Johnson. At least in the eyes of Gottfried.
“There’s a stigma with that, like somehow they’ve failed if they are still in college,” Gottfried said. “I look at Brice as a guy as a freshman he struggled, as a sophomore he kind of struggled. You look at him now and he plays like a senior should play. He steps up in the second half and was just terrific. He’s the guy. He was the guy tonight for them. Nothing wrong with being a senior and I thought he was the difference.”