Johnson, UNC win the day as Pitt’s Stallings continues to stew over transfer

Saturday's game between the Tar Heels and Panthers was an emotional one because of Cam Johnson's controversial transfer last summer. One side clearly handled things better than the other

Cameron Johnson takes the ball to the basket Saturday against Pittsburgh defenders Khameron Davis (13) and Terrell Brown (Bob Donnan/USA TODAY Sports)

CHAPEL HILL — Cameron Johnson’s transfer from Pittsburgh to North Carolina last summer was a contentious one in which his old school tried to block the graduate student from playing for the Tar Heels this season.

Pittsburgh ultimately backed down and after several days of public shaming on social media, granting Johnson his release.

But hard feelings still remain.

Panthers coach Kevin Stallings made that abundantly clear during his postgame press conference at Smith Center following his team’s 96-65 drubbing at the hands of UNC.

Asked by a reporter to assess “how Cam played,” Stallings sarcastically went into a dissertation about current Pitt freshman Khameron Davis. When a follow-up question was asked specifically about Johnson, the aggravated coach answered that he “doesn’t like to comment on other people’s players,” before referring the coach to the Tar Heels’ Roy Williams.

Stallings was then asked if he said anything to his former player either before or after the game, to which he replied: “I said ‘good game’ to him after the game.”

Or maybe he didn’t. The two literally brushed by one another in the postgame handshake line before going their separate ways both figuratively and literally. Afterward, Johnson was asked the same question as Stallings.

Did you say anything to each other?

“We did not,” the player said.

Unlike his former coach, who did little to hide his bitterness toward Johnson, the 6-foot-8 forward chose the more mature route by taking the high road about his first game against his former team.

“If I was a coach, I wouldn’t necessarily want my player to leave, either,” Johnson said after scoring 14 points to help the Tar Heels break a three-game losing streak while handing Pitt its 11th straight loss without a win in the ACC. “There’s no hard feelings on my end.

“I don’t think Coach Stallings was trying to punish me for doing anything. They were kind of sticking to their ways.”

Although Johnson said he tried his best to treat his reunion game just like any other, he admitted afterward that it was more meaningful to him than the others he has played for UNC this season.

“Obviously you’re going to feel some things when you play your former team,” he said. “I spent three years there. I grew up in Pittsburgh. My dad played at Pitt. My mom went to nursing school there. My brother is still doing research for the university, so obviously I have a pretty strong connection there.

“There is a little bit of extra emotion playing against your former team, but I just tried to come out and make it feel like any other game.”

As uncomfortable as the matchup might have been, the situation was eased somewhat by the fact that, because of graduation, injury and turnover, there is only one player — Jonathan Milligan — left on Pitt’s roster that was on the team with Johnson.

“That makes a difference,” Johnson said. “I helped recruit a couple of those guys on their visit, so I know (them) decently enough. I have respect for them and just wanted to come out and get a win today.”

He did just that by getting the Smith Center crowd involved with an emphatic dunk early in the game, then sparking a game-breaking run by scoring eight straight points late in the half.

Johnson also recorded four assists and two steals, but he also looked to be pressing at times while going just 1 of 7 from 3-point range and 5 of 14 from the floor overall.

“He might have been,” Williams said afterward when asked if he thought Johnson was affected by the pressure of playing against the Panthers. “He missed some good-looking shots. He’s been shooting the ball well.”

Johnson averaged 11.9 points and 2.3 assists while shooting 41.5 percent from 3-point range at Pitt last season. His best game, coincidentally, came at the Smith Center when he went 6 for 9 from beyond the arc and scored 24 points in a close loss to the Tar Heels.

“You’d be lying if you said he didn’t have any extra emotion,” UNC teammate Theo Pinson said. “He wanted this game badder than anyone else on the team. We wanted to make sure we got it done for him.”