Brice Johnson

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VIDEO: North Carolina’s Brice Johnson adjusts mid-air for alley-oop

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No. 1 North Carolina’s size in the front court was one area of concern for No. 2 Villanova entering the national title game, and senior forward Brice Johnson made sure to take advantage with this alley-oop dunk.

Given his height the play itself may not seem like much, but Johnson’s mid-air adjustment to the pass while also knowing where the basket was impressive.

Second half run pushes No. 1 North Carolina into Sweet 16

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Faced with the task of slowing down the tandem of guard Kris Dunn and forward Ben Bentil, East No. 1 North Carolina relied on its depth to get the job done. Roy Williams’ Tar Heels were in a fight for the game’s first 30 minutes but managed to pull away down the stretch, winning 85-66 to advance to the Sweet 16.

North Carolina’s depth and talent won out, with Dunn and Bentil both having to deal with foul trouble and the latter fouling out with 7:23 remaining. By that point the Friars were already down 14, and the loss of Bentil was essentially the final nail in the coffin for Ed Cooley’s team.

Providence’s bigger issue was that they didn’t get much from the supporting cast outside of Kyron Cartwright’s seven points on the night. No Friar outside of Dunn (29 points), Bentil (22) and Cartwright scored more than two points, with Rodney Bullock and Jalen Lindsay scoring two points apiece. The lack of consistency outside of Dunn and Bentil cost Providence during Big East play, and against a team as good as North Carolina that can’t happen.

North Carolina’s improved defensively down the stretch of this season, and while Providence’s two main cogs combined to score 51 points they were made to work for them all. And when you add in the Tar Heels’ defending of Providence’s other players, it’s easy to see why Roy Williams’ team managed to advance.

Offensively North Carolina performed well, with Brice Johnson finishing with 21 points, ten rebounds and two blocks and four other Tar Heels reaching double figures. As a team they shot 52.5 percent from three and 19-for-21 from the foul line, areas in which they held a clear advantage over the Friars. Next up for North Carolina is No. 5 Indiana in Philadelphia Friday night, and the Hoosiers pose a different test for the Tar Heels on both ends of the floor.

With more scoring options Indiana will be a tougher cover for North Carolina. But with their improved attention to detail, something that wasn’t present in the first half of their win over FGCU, the Tar Heels are capable of adding to their current run of seven straight wins.

No. 1 North Carolina pulls away from No. 16 FGCU

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Just two days after blowing out fellow No. 16 Fairleigh Dickinson at the First Four in Dayton, No. 16 FGCU faced the unenviable task of trying to become the first-ever 16-seed to beat a one seed. And for 20 minutes against No. 1 North Carolina the Eagles held their own, trailing by just one point at the intermission. But the final 20 minutes were an entirely different story, as Brice Johnson and the Tar Heels took control and won by the final score of 83-67.

Johnson was dominant on the defensive end of the floor, establishing a school NCAA tournament record with eight blocked shots while changing many other looks in the paint. The senior forward also led five Tar Heels in double figures with 18 points and grabbed seven rebounds on the night, and his increased activity served as a spark for a team that didn’t show up expecting a fight from FGCU.

UNC was much better on both ends of the floor in the second half, executing with greater efficiency on the offensive end and playing with greater passion defensively. Joel Berry II added 14 points and six rebounds, Isaiah Hicks and Justin Jackson 12 apiece and Marcus Paige ten points.

After scoring 22 points in the paint in the first half FGCU tallied just ten in the second, with the North Carolina guards doing a better job of keeping the Eagles out of the paint and a “human eraser” in Johnson on the back line to clean up any mistake. Next up for the Tar Heels will be either No. 8 USC or No. 9 Providence, and they’ll need to bring the effort shown in the second half tonight for a full 40 minutes.

FGCU competed as best they could and for 20 minutes added some intrigue to the proceedings. But the combination of North Carolina’s skill and weary legs combined to end any talk of history being made in Raleigh.

No. 7 UNC opens ACC Tournament by topping Pitt 88-71

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WASHINGTON (AP) Seventh-ranked North Carolina got off to a fast start at the ACC Tournament as the regular-season champion routed Pittsburgh 88-71 Thursday to take the first step toward its first conference title since 2008.

Four players scored in double figures as the Tar Heels (26-6) shot 58.9 percent from the floor and pulled away from Pittsburgh (20-11) in front of a boisterous crowd in baby blue at Verizon Center.

Joel Berry II led North Carolina with 20 points on 7-of-8 shooting, and Brice Johnson added 19 on 8-of-11 shooting. The Tar Heels will face either No. 19 Duke or Notre Dame in the semifinals Friday.

Jamel Artis and Michael Young each scored 19 points for the Panthers, who still should be NCAA Tournament-bound despite the loss.

Artis started the game with a personal 8-0 run in the first 91 seconds. Looking spry despite playing 24 hours earlier, Pitt led by as many as eight early until the Tar Heels found their groove.

A turnover by James Robinson with 47 seconds left in the first half led to an emphatic dunk by Johnson that gave UNC the lead. While the Tar Heels went on a 12-0 run that carried over into the second half, Pitt had a 4:52 scoring drought.

The Panthers tied the score at 45 with 15:52 left on a 3-pointer by Sheldon Jeter. The tie lasted 15 seconds until Paige connected from long range, and UNC kept Pitt at arm’s length.

The Tar Heels went on an 11-0 run that put the game out of reach and showed just how dangerous they can be when hitting jumpers.

KENNY KILLS PITT

UNC freshman Kenny Williams’ 3-pointer during the big second-half run was the first basket of his college career after starting 0 for 12. It was the seldom-played guard’s first shot attempt since Valentine’s Day.

PITT’S NCAA CASE

Coach Jamie Dixon, who referenced the NIT if his team lost its ACC Tournament opener, said it was in “pretty good shape” after beating Syracuse. The Panthers – who entered ranked 53rd in the RPI with the 41st-toughest strength of schedule – are 8-8 against top-50 opponents.

NET GAINS

Arena workers replaced one of the nets at halftime because the bottom had become frayed. Not coincidentally, it was the end North Carolina scored on when it made five straight shots to end the first half.

TIP-INS

Pittsburgh: Cameron Johnson and Robinson, the heroes of the second-round win against Syracuse, combined for to shoot 5 of 18 from the field. … With his fourth assist, Robinson became the fifth player in school history to reach 600 in his career.

North Carolina: Reached the ACC Tournament semifinals for the fifth time in the past six years. … The Tar Heels improved to 5-0 in neutral-site games this season.

UP NEXT

North Carolina: Faces the winner of No. 19 Duke vs. Notre Dame in semifinals Friday.

NEW PODCAST! Duke/Carolina, top five teams and a weekend preview

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It’s Friday, which means time for another episode of the NBC Sports College Basketball Talk Podcast. Host Rob Dauster and Raphielle Johnson got together to discuss some of the major happenings from this week, most notably No. 20 Duke’s win at No. 5 North Carolina.

How concerned should we be about the Tar Heels, especially their guard play? What can Duke do to keep this run going with another player (Matt Jones) being lost to injury?

Also discussed are the three other losses taken by teams ranked in the Top 5 this week, No. 3 Oklahoma, No. 4 Iowa and No. 5 Maryland. Which one has the biggest issues to deal with in regards to preparing for a run in the NCAA tournament? There’s also chatter about whether or not a certain Kentucky Wildcat deserves to be in the national Player of the Year conversation, which Big East team is best equipped to play deep into March (Villanova or Xavier?), and some of the big games on the schedule for this weekend.

As always, you can subscribe to the podcast on either iTunes or Stitcher. Or if you so choose, just click the “play” button on the audio player below. Thanks for listening!

PREGAME SHOOTAROUND: No. 20 Duke visits No. 5 North Carolina

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GAME OF THE NIGHT: No. 20 Duke at No. 5 North Carolina, 9:00 p.m.

This choice is a simple one, with one of the best rivalries in all of sports taking place. Mike Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils have won four straight games, with their defensive improvements being a key reason why (our Rob Dauster has more on that here). Grayson Allen and Brandon Ingram have led the way offensively for Duke, but getting stops will be key for them not just tonight but in March as well. How well Duke fares on the defensive glass against the bigger Tar Heels will be a key, but UNC has its own questions to address.

The biggest: how engaged will Justin Jackson and Brice Johnson be? Johnson made his way into the ACC POY conversation and Jackson saved the Heels at Boston College, but both have to bring consistent effort for Roy Williams’ team to reach its full potential. North Carolina played well in its win over Pittsburgh Sunday, but can they build on that momentum?

THIS ONE’S GOOD TOO: No. 15 Dayton at Saint Joseph’s, 6:00 p.m.

There are two big games in Philadelphia tonight (more on the other one below), and this one will have a major impact not only on the Atlantic 10 race but on NCAA tournament profiles as well. Archie Miller’s Flyers are well positioned to land a good seed next month, and a win here would keep Dayton (who’s won nine straight) alone atop the A-10 standings. Dyshawn Pierre’s return has been key, but the contributions of Charles Cooke III and Scoochie Smith should not be overlooked either. Saint Joseph’s will counter with the incredibly versatile DeAndre Bembry and the A-10’s most improved player in forward Isaiah Miles, who’s been a key option in the front court for Phil Martelli’s Hawks.

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH FOR

1. No. 1 Villanova will step outside of Big East play as they visit Big 5 rival Temple (7:00 p.m.) in a critical game for the home team. Fran Dunphy’s Owls sit atop the American, and a win here would (barring a collapse) in all likelihood sew up an NCAA tournament bid. Villanova, on the other hand, is once again in the mix for a one-seed and can wrap up the outright Big 5 title with a win.

2. Unless Villanova falters down the stretch, No. 8 Xavier is the only team capable of chasing down the Wildcats in the Big East standings. The Musketeers, two games back, will need to avoid any losses if they’re to accomplish that beginning with their game against No. 23 Providence tonight (7:00 p.m.). The Friars lean upon the tandem of Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil, but they’ll need more against the deeper Musketeers.

3. One team that may not be receiving as much “bubble” chatter as they deserve is Alabama, which has won four straight including wins over Texas A&M and Florida. The Crimson Tide visit LSU tonight (9:00 p.m.), with both teams in a position where another quality win would help their cause. LSU won the first meeting by two points in Tuscaloosa, with Ben Simmons going for 23 points, eight rebounds and five assists.

4. After getting swept last weekend USC looks to get back on the right track with a win over Colorado (11:00 p.m.) in Los Angeles. Andy Enfield’s Trojans have yet to lose at home this season, and their offensive balance (six players averaging double figures) is one reason why. Colorado, which is also well positioned to reach the NCAA tournament, did not have Josh Scott (ankle) last week and his status for tonight has yet to be determined. That’s a key for the Buffs, given how good USC’s front court with the likes of Nikola Jovanovic, Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu has been this year.

5. Texas Tech, which beat two ranked teams in Iowa State and Baylor last week, has another opportunity to get a marquee win as they host No. 3 Oklahoma. Keenan Evans is averaging more than 17 points per game over the last three for Tubby Smith’s Red Raiders, who can also call upon Devauntagh Williams and Toddrick Gotcher on the perimeter. Buddy Hield and company are looking to rebound from their loss to No. 2 Kansas, but that won’t be easy to do in Lubbock.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

  • No. 4 Iowa at Penn State, 6:30 p.m.
  • Virginia Tech at No. 11 Miami, 9:00 p.m.
  • Arizona State at No. 12 Arizona, 9:00 p.m.
  • Syracuse at No. 18 Louisville, 7:00 p.m.
  • Nebraska at No. 22 Indiana, 8:30 p.m.

OTHER NOTABLE GAMES

  • Stony Brook at Albany, 7:00 p.m.
  • George Washington at Duquesne, 7:00 p.m.
  • Seton Hall at Georgetown, 9:00 p.m.
  • Boise State at New Mexico, 10:00 p.m.