Johnson saw 22 minutes of action off the bench against the Terrapins and delivered with 19 points on 8-for-8 shooting from the field. The offensive display stole the show, but according to Roy Williams, Johnson’s defensive effort in Monday’s practice marked a major moment for the Orangeburg, S.C. native.
“He acted like he was possessed,” Williams said. “He was talking on defense, he was helping out. He got up and denied a pass at the top of the key and denied a pass into the post. There was a big switch when they made a piston action play and he called that out and did it aggressively. I thought 'oh my gosh, what’d he have for lunch today' because whatever it was, I’m going to have the daggum stuff shipped in so he can have it every day for the rest of his life.”
Williams praised Johnson after the game and further stressed the the elevation in the sophomore's play of late.
“I thought Brice really came through,” Williams said. “He had the best practice of his entire life yesterday and I hope that translates into good play for the rest of the season. He was really important to us.”
Johnson agreed that he’s made strides defensively and attributed the results to his desire to reach the potential Williams sees in him.
“He says I can be a great player one day,” Johnson explained. “I just have to put more effort into it so I’m just putting a little more effort into it so I can be that great player that he sees in me. Knowing that I can really play defense and I just have to understand that it can help my offensive game.
“He always tells me I can really score the ball but 'I need you on the defensive end' at the end of the day. That’s just one thing I’ve been working on. Just trying to get better on the defensive end and the offense will come to me because that’s just what I do.”
Kennedy Meeks echoed Williams’s praise of Johnson and expected the type of performance he saw against Maryland after Monday’s practice.
“Yeah, he was going crazy in practice on the defensive end, on the block as far as rebounding and as far as being efficient like he was today,” Meeks said. “He was 8-for-8 tonight and he was that way in practice yesterday so I can’t be nothing but proud of him.”
Despite his scoring ability, the offensive portion of Johnson’s game has dropped since the start of ACC play, reaching double digits on just two occasions (12 against WFU, 14 against BC) prior to Tuesday night. The added production is critical for the continued development of the Tar Heel offensive attack, according to point guard Marcus Paige.
“He’s huge for us because he can get his shot easier than almost anyone on our team,” Paige said. “So to have him consistently knocking down his jump hook or getting to the foul line, getting some easy dunks and put backs, that’s easy offense that we need because we’re not the most prolific offensive team. When he’s contributing on the block, then it makes it easier for James Michael to get going. It takes pressure off Leslie to make shots and takes pressure off me to make things happen.”
James Michael McAdoo agreed with Paige and acknowledged his chemistry with Johnson in the post.
“When we’ve got smaller guys on us, we’ve definitely got a good sense of where the other guy is on the court,” McAdoo said. “Ever since Brice first got here, I’ve noticed that we do play very well together and are able to just find each other and get easy shots.”
The breakout performance for Johnson may provide the confidence for future success in ACC play for the sophomore.
“It’s a big plus knowing I can do that in the ACC,” Johnson said. “In the other games, I felt like my shot would go in and they just went halfway in and halfway out. They were just going in today.”
Johnson compared his recent progress to snagging an offensive rebound saying, “I know that I can get off a box out and I don’t have to just stand behind somebody and just rely on my jumping ability to jump over somebody like I did in high school.
“Instead of trying to find the easy way out, I need to just go ahead and do it.”