Cam Johnson's big night powers UNC past Gonzaga

In college basketball, two years is a long time.

UNC’s win over Gonzaga in the 2017 national championship game was only 20 months ago.

When the two teams squared off again in the Dean Dome Saturday night, though, they looked totally different.

Only two players from either side – Killian Tillie and Josh Perkins for Gonzaga and Seventh Woods and Luke Maye from UNC – who played in that game are still on the rosters.

And the player who had the biggest role in No. 12 North Carolina’s 103-90 win over the fourth-ranked Bulldogs wasn’t anywhere near Phoenix that April night.

While his six three pointers will be what folks remember from Saturday’s win, Cam Johnson also excelled across the court. He finished with four assists on the evening. | Photo by Alex Kormann

While his six three pointers will be what folks remember from Saturday’s win, Cam Johnson also excelled across the court. He finished with four assists on the evening. | Photo by Alex Kormann

Cameron Johnson was in his hometown of Moon Township, Pennsylvania, and he was eating ice cream on his couch.

“It was homemade by my older brother and his girlfriend,” Johnson said after the game. “Salted caramel.”

Johnson, who scored 25 points on a career-high 6-of-8 from 3, did some salting of his own against the highest-ranked Smith Center visitor since 2015.

The most notable of Johnson’s six treys came on a 30-foot heave with the shot clock buzzer sounding and the Tar Heels clinging to a nine-point lead against a Gonzaga team that wouldn’t go away.

“I was shocked by some of the 3s he hit,” freshman guard Coby White said. “Cam was Cam tonight. He always makes shots. He always comes ready to play.”

The Tar Heels needed every bit of Johnson’s heroics thanks to a familiar foe.

Carolina committed a total of 23 turnovers on the night, its most since totaling 24 against Ohio in a 2012 Sweet Sixteen game. With incumbent Kendall Marshall sidelined with a wrist injury, the point guard that night was Stillman White. White, however, didn’t record a single turnover. The effort was a communal one, much like Saturday night’s outcome.

Coby White had the most Saturday with 5, but six other Tar Heels recorded at least two giveaways. Gonzaga’s 29 points off turnovers kept them in a game in which Carolina shot 57.7 percent from beyond the arc, a season high.

“It’s probably one out of ten games that you’ll have 23 turnovers and win by that margin,” White said. “But that’s something we can fix. It’s an easy fix.”

Whether or not the turnover problem can be addressed easily is debatable. What’s not, though, is Carolina’s re-insertion in the national elite conversation.

Cam Johnson slams home a dunk through traffic in the first half of Saturday’s win over Gonzaga. The graduate transfer finished the night with 25 points. | Photo by Alex Kormann.

Cam Johnson slams home a dunk through traffic in the first half of Saturday’s win over Gonzaga. The graduate transfer finished the night with 25 points. | Photo by Alex Kormann.

“I felt like after the Michigan game people were probably pretty down on us,” Johnson said. “We wanted to bounce back. We thought this was a great opportunity.”

In his postgame presser Roy Williams talked about the 2009 championship team, and how players like Wayne Ellington and Ty Lawson weren’t initially concerned about defense. They just figured they’d outscore everyone.

Williams noted, though, that the players eventually bought into the importance of defense and improved tremendously throughout the dominant season.

No one is comparing this year’s team to the ’09 juggernaut, but Williams’ squads have typically evolved into solid defensive teams by the end of the year.

With even an average defensive effort, 100 points will almost always get the job done.

“It all comes down to getting stops on the defensive end,” White said. “You know we can score the ball.”

And you know Johnson can score the ball. The Pittsburgh graduate transfer is now averaging a team-leading 15.7 points per game and shooting 44 percent from deep.

Johnson, though, isn’t worried about the statistics. He’s simply content to be at UNC and playing in games like this one in front of a crowd that Williams said was among the best in his tenure.

“I’m really thankful for this opportunity,” Johnson said. “If you would’ve told me I’d be playing for Carolina while I was watching that game, I’d be like, ‘You’re crazy.’”

It certainly beats ice cream.

@jleland_