CHAPEL HILL — The original plan was for Cameron Johnson to only play about 6-8 minutes in his North Carolina basketball debut Wednesday.
The fact that he was on the floor for 17 says a lot about how badly the game against Wofford went. And how important the graduate transfer from Pittsburgh could be for the Tar Heels as they prepare to enter the ACC portion of their schedule.
“I’ve been around college basketball for a little bit now,” Johnson said after UNC’s shocking 79-75 loss to Wofford at Smith Center. “This is my fourth year, so it’s just a little bit of experience. I think that might be the reason for the extra minutes. With those minutes, I just wanted to play my hardest.”
Despite going a rusty 1 for 5 from the floor, Johnson contributed 10 points, three rebounds, an assist and a steal in his first game back from a preseason knee injury that required surgery.
His most important stat, however, is that the Tar Heels outscored the Terriers by 13 points during the time he was in the game.
UNC was a significantly better team with him than without him, especially in a small lineup that utilized the 6-foot-8 wing at the power forward position.
“He helped us out, especially spreading out the floor,” point guard Joel Berry said afterward. “I think it was a good first game to come back and get his feet up under him.”
Johnson came to UNC with a reputation as an athletic perimeter presence and an accurate 3-point shooter. He was brought in to be a veteran replacement for last year’s ACC Player of the Year Justin Jackson.
Although Williams had hoped to ease him back into the lineup slowly while he regained his rhythm and played himself back into game shape, the plan went out the window when the Tar Heels fell behind by 14 midway through the second half Wednesday.
I shouldn’t have put Cam back into the game at the end,” Williams said. “I gave him more minutes than I wanted to. He was winded out there at the end.”
Williams said he checked with trainer Doug Halverson before extending Johnson’s playing time and that Halverson signed off only allowing him to play more than expected.
Johnson also said he felt fine physically, though he did admit that “obviously there are some kinks I need to work out to get back into full swing.
“I wanted to play my hardest,” he said. “I’m still trying to get my legs back under me, my arms back under me. This is just something that I need to build off of, that the team needs to build off of. We’ll take this lesson and move on.”
Johnson and the Tar Heels won’t have to wait long to put the Wofford loss behind them when they take on Ohio State in New Orleans as part of the CBS Sports Classic on Saturday.
It’s an important game for Johnson to work on both his conditioning and his familiarity with UNC’s system in the team’s last nonconference tuneup before starting ACC play against Wake Forest on Dec. 30.
“Being out for a handful of weeks is tough on the body and the mind, in the sense that you kind of have to rework yourself back into the system and pick up the plays you missed while you were out,” Johnson said. “Just learning a new offense and having a setback like that, it’s a little bit challenging. But it’s something you have to work through.”