Cam Johnson had thoughts during his first North Carolina-Duke game Thursday night.
Thankfully he couldn’t hear them.
The din inside the Dean Dome drowned out those thoughts, as the guard helped the No. 21 Tar Heels rally from a 12-point deficit to beat the No. 9 Blue Devils, 82-78.
That’s what Johnson will remember about his introduction to the rivalry.
“It was honestly an unbelievable experience,” Johnson said about playing in his first Duke-UNC game. “A really big shout out to the fans. They did a great job of not letting me hear my thoughts at any point during the game.”’
Johnson didn’t need to think. He just needed play – and play well he did, scoring 18 points and grabbing 13 rebounds in 35 minutes on the court.
Having transferred to UNC last summer after graduating from Pittsburgh, Johnson showed the stage wasn’t too big for him.
UNC coach Roy Williams told all the Tar Heels this game is “a different kind of thing.” Both UNC-Duke regular-season games are treated as special events. The first one carries even more emotion because, well, it’s the first one.
Johnson played two seasons and redshirted in another at Pittsburgh before graduating and transferring to UNC.
Like everyone in college basketball, he’d heard plenty about the Duke-UNC rivalry. Now he knows first hand what it’s like.
“It was everything that everyone said it would be,” Johnson said.
In the first half, Duke had the upper hand as it built a 40-28 lead.
But Johnson hit a layup and a 3-pointer as UNC clawed back to trail 49-45 at halftime.
The 6-8, 210-pound Johnson helped UNC send a message that, while Duke may have knocked the Tar Heels back, the Blue Devils didn’t knock the Tar Heels out.
UNC roared out of the second half on a 16-2 run to take control.
With the game tied at 51, Johnson willed the Tar Heels into the lead. He rebounded Theo Pinson’s missed 3-pointer and missed a put-back shot. But Johnson didn’t give up on the play He rebounded his own miss to score and give UNC a 53-51 lead.
The Tar Heels never trailed again.
“Coach told us to play with our heart and our brain both,” Johnson said. “I think at times in the first half, we were playing hard but we didn’t use our brain fully. So I think when we came out in the second half, especially in the beginning, we kind of put it all together.”
The Tar Heels have done that after a tough stretch. UNC lost three consecutive ACC games before whipping league doormat Pittsburgh, 96-65 last Saturday night.
Now UNC built on that feel-good performance with an even sweeter win over its rival under an intense spotlight.
A trip to Raleigh to face N.C. State at PNC Arena on Saturday will come fast.
Johnson scored 12 points but missed all four of his 3-pointers when the Wolfpack won 95-91 in overtime at the Smith Center on Jan. 27.
The Tar Heels can only hope the Johnson that played so well against Duke will be on display in the rematch against N.C. State.