North Carolina graduate senior Cam Johnson knew that he would have to play better than he had in recent games, if the 12th-ranked Tar Heels were going to beat No. 4 Gonzaga on Saturday.
Before he scored 21 points (7-for-14) against UNC-Wilmington on Dec. 5, UNC’s leading scorer scored only five points against then-No. 7 Michigan, and the Tar Heels lost 84-67.
Against the Zags on Saturday, he seemed to get his groove back. The only thing Johnson seemed to have trouble with was missing shots. He scored 25 points on 8-for-12 shooting, and the Tar Heels took down the Zags 103-90 at the Dean E. Smith Center.
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It was Gonzaga’s (9-2) second consecutive loss of the season, and UNC’s (8-2) second consecutive win.
Senior forward Luke Maye, who was tasked with guarding Gonzaga’s best player, Rui Hachimura, had 20 points and 16 rebounds. And junior point guard Seventh Woods had a career-high 14 points. He hit six consecutive points before halftime to give the Tar Heels a 53-39 lead at the half.
“I’ve been telling Cam, Kenny (Williams) and Luke that ‘you guys are our best shooters, how about trying to be our best makers,’” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “I thought Cam was really something tonight. Luke is stepping up.”
The last time that UNC and Gonzaga had faced each other was the 2017 national championship game, and UNC won 71-65.
There was hardly an empty seat Saturday night. The Tar Heels came into the game hoping to pick up a marquee win against one of the top teams in the country. The fourth-ranked Zags had been the No. 1 team in the AP Top 25 Poll, before losing to Tennessee 76-73 last Sunday.
The Tar Heels finally got that win.
The Bulldogs led the Tar Heels 9-5 after five minutes, but that was the last time they would have the lead. The Tar Heels went on a 19-3 run over the next five minutes, and never really looked back.
“We came out with a different kind of energy than we’ve had in previous games,” Johnson said. “I thought that was really big for us.”
The Zags managed to get the score to within 10 points on a few occasions, but each time the Tar Heels had an answer. The Tar Heels shot 55 percent from the floor, and 52 percent (13-25) from behind the 3-point line.
Gonzaga’s Hachimura had 17 points, but was 5-for-14 from the floor.
Johnson was the story of the game. He was 6-for-8 from 3. He hit a 30-foot, 3-point shot with just under six minutes left in the game to give the Tar Heels a 17-point lead.
As the clock ticked toward zero, and Williams put in his reserves, Johnson raised his hands in the air, urging the crowd to get on their feet. They screamed.
The Tar Heels had finally got their marquee win.