TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – For a brief moment early in the second half here Monday night, Florida State seemed to have all the ingredients needed for an upset of No. 7 North Carolina.
The Seminoles had rallied had back from a double-digit deficit to take a lead, sophomore guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes had once again caught fire from the field and the crowd packed inside the Donald L. Tucker Center was as loud as at any point this season, maybe at any point in years.
Then, almost immediately, the Tar Heels flexed their muscles and reminded everyone in attendance – as well as a national TV audience – why they entered the season ranked No. 1 in the country.
Brice Johnson had 39 points and 23 rebounds – that’s not a typo – and Marcus Paige added 30 points and five assists as the more experienced, deeper Tar Heels raced past Florida State for a 106-90 victory at the Donald L. Tucker Center.
FSU lost back-to-back games for the first time this season and will look for its first conference win at No. 11 Miami on Saturday.
“We lost to a team tonight that I thought just had a little too much firepower for us,” FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said. “Obviously, they had two players that we had a very difficult time defending. We dug a hole for ourselves early in the game and I was very proud of the fact that our guys fought back. I thought they gave tremendous effort.”
Johnson’s night was reflective of North Carolina’s game as whole: Lots of points and lots of rebounds.
After taking a 41-37 lead into the break, the Tar Heels came back to shoot 65.7 percent from the field in the second half.
And UNC enjoyed an overwhelming advantage on the glass, where it outrebounded FSU 50-33. That included 32 offensive rebounds that led to 17 second-chance points.
“That’s what you’re going to get from a good team,” FSU freshman Dwayne Bacon said. “It frustrates you a lot, you’ve just got to keep fighting.”
Early on, the game had the makings of a blow out.
The Tar Heels scored the game’s first eight points and led by as much as 14 before the Seminoles – primarily Rathan-Mayes – rallied and cut their deficit to 31-27.
Rathan-Mayes, who scored 35 against UNC at Chapel Hill last year, struck for 30 points on Monday and made 7 of 9 attempts from 3-point range.
And freshmen Bacon and Malik Beasley heated up after slow first halves to finish with 18 and 15 points, respectively.
Beasley’s layup at the 15:49 mark of the second half completed a 43-28 FSU run and gave the Seminoles their only lead of the game at 56-55.
But despite a crowd of 11,095 – including nearly 3,500 students – finally on its feet and loud, that lead proved to be short-lived.
The Tar Heels reclaimed their advantage after a strange sequence in which freshman Chris Koumadje was whistled for a foul and then issued an additional technical foul for swatting the ball into the stands after the whistle.
That kicked off an 11-2 UNC run that kept the Seminoles at arm’s length for the rest of the game.
During two-minute, 24-second stretch, Johnson went on a 15-6 run all by himself.
“Brice Johnson was off the charts,” Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said. “I’ve been on his case for four years. I’m still going to be on his case, but 39 points, 23 rebounds, that was a man’s night.”
Added Hamilton: “I thought we did a very poor job of keeping Brice off the boards. But to his credit, I thought sometimes we had him blocked out and he went over us with his athleticism and finished the play.
“Sometimes it’s not all about what you don’t do. Sometimes you’ve got to give teams credit for doing things right.”
In a way, that summed up the game. Led by their core of Rathan-Mayes, Bacon and Beasley, Seminoles have a good team with a chance to be even better by the end of the season.
The Tar Heels, however, have a great team that’s bolstered by seniors who will be playing in the NBA next year.
FSU at least made a believer out of Williams.
“They’re big-time athletes (with) big-time ability to score, run it up and down the court,” he said. “I don’t want to play them anymore.”