For those looking for a barometer to gauge the top NCAA basketball title contenders this season, the CBSSports Classic yesterday afternoon at Barclays Center offered a look at preseason No. 1 North Carolina and perennial power Kentucky — just not against each other.
The best seat in the house might have belonged to UCLA coach Steve Alford, who watched his team get taken apart in the second half of an 89-76 loss to the Tar Heels. A little more than two weeks ago, Alford’s Bruins upset Kentucky. They also have a win over Gonzaga and took a 19-point beating from Kansas in the Maui Invitational in November.
“This is a scary team,” Alford said of the Tar Heels. “You look at this and add [injured Kennedy] Meeks to that, and it’s as good a team as we’ve played.”
UNC (9-2) has had its share of hiccups this season, losing at Northern Iowa and at Texas, but after falling behind UCLA (8-4) by 11 points midway through the first half, the Tar Heels looked the part of a team that could be holding the trophy at the end of the line.
Forward Brice Johnson took up the slack for Meeks (bone bruise), shooting 11-for-12 and scoring a career-high 27 points to go with nine rebounds. Guard Joel Berry II shot 8-for-14 and had a career-high 17 points. The Tar Heels shot 61.1 percent from the field in the second half. For the game, they turned 17 Bruins turnovers into 24 points and outscored UCLA 58-26 in the paint.
“Our bigs got in foul trouble, and it eventually caught up to us because the difference was points off turnovers and points in the paint,” Alford said. “Johnson has a lot to do with that.”
Isaac Hamilton led UCLA with 23 points, Bryce Alford had 15 and post man Tony Parker finished with 13 points and 11 boards but sat for long stretches with foul trouble.
Johnson’s explosion came after coach Roy Williams benched him for eight minutes in the first half after a cursing episode. “Coach got mad and took him out,” Williams said. “I just didn’t like what he said.”
Johnson was chagrined. “I used bad language, and Coach sat me for it,” he said. “It put a fire under my butt . . . I was wondering if I was going to get back in the game. I was worried. Coach looked past me about four times in the rotation.”
When Williams finally called Johnson’s name, he scored 11 points in a 13-2 run as North Carolina went into halftime tied at 38. In the second half, the Tar Heels shot out to a nine-point lead but let it slip to 60-57. Then Johnson had eight points and Berry seven in a 20-6 surge that pushed the lead back to 80-63.
Williams said his team played “pretty doggone good’’ but said Johnson must continue to play at a high level.
“Brice’s energy level was so much better in the second half,” Williams said, “that I almost hugged and kissed him one time. But then I realized who it was.”