Luke DeCock

For Tar Heels, ‘pieces coming together’

North Carolina’s Brice Johnson (11) puts up a shot under Louisville’ Montrezl Harrell (24) during the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament at the Greensboro Coliseum.
North Carolina’s Brice Johnson (11) puts up a shot under Louisville’ Montrezl Harrell (24) during the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament at the Greensboro Coliseum. rwillett@newsobserver.com

North Carolina grew up Thursday, a very private development conducted in very public fashion. The Tar Heels, in plain view of everyone, over the course of a single game, became the team they thought they could be. The team they thought they would be.

Will it last? That’s anyone’s guess. Consistency hasn’t been North Carolina’s strongest attribute this season. But in Thursday’s 70-60 win over Louisville in the ACC quarterfinals, the Tar Heels grew up – or took a giant step forward, if you prefer.

“Move forward,” North Carolina’s J.P. Tokoto said. “I like that one better.”

Still, there was no debating the progress shown on the court Thursday, especially in areas where the Tar Heels have often struggled.

“I hope so,” North Carolina guard Marcus Paige said. “I hope it’s not a one-time thing. The pieces are coming together.”

The Tar Heels had their toughness challenged at the most elemental level in a very public way. By Louisville’s Montrezl Harrell. By an uncharacteristically livid Roy Williams. By a Louisville team that came back from a double-digit deficit to beat them once this season already. And they answered on every count.

No one was singled out more than Brice Johnson, who was manhandled by Harrell in the first half before Williams called a timeout, threw his suit coat and stormed directly into Johnson’s chest, red-faced and irate. Johnson’s a full foot taller than Williams, but he shrank in the face of the onslaught. Williams then moved on to Tokoto, whose overall play he would later compliment but did not rate very highly at that particular moment.

Paige, who qualifies as an expert on the subject, said it was the angriest he had seen Williams since the loss to Butler in Hawaii two seasons ago.

Between Williams in the timeout and a long line of assistant coaches at halftime, Johnson got the message. He responded with 20 of his 22 points after that, not only a riposte to Harrell and Williams but to his frequent late-game fades. Johnson and Kennedy Meeks, weary after a week of illness, scored 14 of Carolina’s final 18 points, but their defense was even more important.

“When we get them to compete on the other end of the floor, that’s when we go from a good team to a team that can really contend,” Paige said.

Johnson has always been capable of being dominating like this in the paint but is too often more of a passive figure. But when he waved off Paige on a fast break and dunked the ball himself, on one notable play, he assumed a new authority on the court.

“I wasn’t playing the way I should have been playing in the first half, and in the second half I decided to man up and just be able to come out and play,” Johnson said. “Just be a man.”

Johnson’s contributions topped a list of positive developments for North Carolina, a long list of so many things the Tar Heels have struggled with this season that came up the right way Thursday.

From Johnson and Meeks to Joel Berry’s continuing development – he hit two first-half 3-pointers that saved North Carolina from early annihilation – to the ability to close out a game with a late lead, the Tar Heels, perhaps for the first time, met their own expectations.

“I just feel like our team is coming together,” North Carolina guard Nate Britt said. “We have so many players who can contribute in so many different ways. Everyone is comfortable with what they do and how they can help this team out, and I felt we showed it today.”

The Tar Heels face Virginia in the semifinals, a relentless basketball machine that exposes even the smallest flaws in the opposition. This may have been a turning point or a one-game trend, but it won’t take long Friday to figure out which one it was.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947

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