Column: This wasn't "any other game" for Cam Johnson

Column: This wasn't "any other game" for Cam Johnson

Cameron Johnson sat with his back against the wall in the depths of the Smith Center, his home for all of eight months, and smiled.

He knew this was coming: the media scrum demanding answers to his mental state after facing his former team for the first time. He and his North Carolina teammates had already beaten Pittsburgh, the team he spent three years with before transferring this offseason. Now, he had to beat the press, too.

This question was about his haircut — full on top, shaved on the sides. It had to be a new look for his old team, right? He flashed a toothy grin, all but admitting the emotion he was hiding.

"I know it seems, you know, like I had it ..." He stumbled, and he laughed. "But I needed a haircut. I had to switch it up."

Johnson says he tried to treat Saturday's game, a 96-65 win over his former team, like "any other game." After all, the No. 19 Tar Heels (17-7, 6-5 ACC) were coming off a three-game losing streak and needed a win over the Panthers (8-16, 0-11 ACC) more than Johnson needed retribution.

Cam Johnson (13) only made one three-pointer in Saturday's win over Pittsburgh. But he says emotions didn't get the best of him against his former team. | Photo by Caleb Jones

Cam Johnson (13) only made one three-pointer in Saturday's win over Pittsburgh. But he says emotions didn't get the best of him against his former team. | Photo by Caleb Jones

But, of course, this wasn't like any other game.

Johnson grew up in Moon Township, Pa., just 20 miles from the University of Pittsburgh. His dad, Gilbert, played there for three years. His mom went to school there, too, and his brother still does research for the University. Johnson graduated there in three years with honors and a bachelor's degree — and he spent 73 games donning navy and gold on the court.

He only played with one current Panther (Jonathan Milligan) in his time at Pittsburgh, but he still stays in touch with nearly half of the players on the roster. He even helped recruit a few of them.

"I can't sit here and say I've totally removed myself from the University of Pittsburgh," Johnson said. "I still have friendships back there. I still have people that I care about."

Johnson says he didn't talk before or after the game with Pittsburgh head coach Kevin Stallings, who coached the guard for a year before his athletic department tried to block Johnson's offseason transfer to UNC. Stallings deflected a question after the game about Johnson and dismissed a follow-up question, saying he doesn't comment on other team's players.

But Johnson was all class after the game, saying he'd likely handle the situation the same way as Stallings and co. if he was on the other side.

"I can't be mad at that in any way," Johnson said. "I don't have any hard feelings toward the University of Pittsburgh or Coach Stallings ... I'm sure he's focused on his team. He's not focused on me. I'm not on his team anymore."

Johnson was on his team the last time Pittsburgh played in the Smith Center, an 80-78 loss on Jan. 31, 2017. In that game, the 6-foot-8 guard tied his career high with 24 points and hit six three-pointers for the Panthers, a feat he still hasn't surpassed. He's hit six threes twice with North Carolina this season, both against Clemson, and his 32 points in Tuesday's loss to those Tigers set a new career high.

Cam Johnson (left) missed nine of his 14 attempts, such as this one over Pittsburgh defender Khameron Davis (right) in the second half of Saturday's win. | Photo by Caleb Jones

Cam Johnson (left) missed nine of his 14 attempts, such as this one over Pittsburgh defender Khameron Davis (right) in the second half of Saturday's win. | Photo by Caleb Jones

But Johnson faltered in his first game against his former team. He missed some open shots, rushed a few others and finished with a paltry 14 points in 30 minutes. He made five of his 14 shot attempts, one of his seven three-point attempts and three of his five free-throw attempts — and he missed his first try at each.

It's hard to believe emotions didn't get the best of him, even if this was like "any other game."

"This game in specific just means a little bit more," Johnson said, "no matter how much I tried to push that aside."

Kenny Williams, one of Johnson's roommates, said the graduate transfer rarely talked about the reunion in the days and hours leading up to Saturday's game. His teammates did that enough of that on their own, teasing him about the long-awaited matchup.

How will you stay focused against your former team? How many shots will you put up?

"Guys, we've got a game in 40 minutes," Johnson said in the locker room. "Let's get focused."

As hard as he tried, this wasn't any other game. And everyone knew it.

You could see it on his face, the anguish with every miss. When his first three-point attempt bounced back in his direction, or when his easy pull-up jumper late in the first half danced off the rim, or when all three of his second-half triples rimmed out in the first few minutes — you could tell they hurt a little bit more.

Cam Johnson (13) had a rough day from the floor, but his first made attempt was a one-handed baseline slam that energized the Smith Center crowd. | Photo by Caleb Jones

Cam Johnson (13) had a rough day from the floor, but his first made attempt was a one-handed baseline slam that energized the Smith Center crowd. | Photo by Caleb Jones

But you could see the triumph of his makes, too. On his first made basket — when he drove baseline through Pittsburgh's zone midway through the first half — he made sure to slam it home with one hand, barely getting it over the rim as the crowd cheered him on. When he followed his first three with a fast-break layup through contact, he violently threw his fist into the air. And after a subsequent lay-in capped off a personal 8-0 run just before halftime, he screamed at his teammates on his way down the court.

"I don't think in those moments that there was any significance," he said. "I think that was the overwhelming emotion, the energy in the arena."

Try as he might to divert the drama, his face gave it away. So did his smile in the moments after the game, reporters swarming the defected Pittsburgh Panther.

It wasn't like any other game, and he knew it.

@CJacksonCowart

Photos by Caleb Jones