AUSTIN -- Reggie Johnson thought about crying.
That’s how much it meant to Miami’s rotund center. That’s how much emotion he felt just stepping onto the basketball court in his orange highlighter-colored sneakers Friday.
“My first time stepping on the floor, it almost made me cry,” Johnson said. “I’ve always watched the [NCAA Tournament] games. I finally got to play in one.”
Given how he felt before the Hurricanes laid waste to Pacific 78-49 in UM’s tournament opener, imagine how Johnson felt after — after he racked up minutes and rebounds like he hadn’t done in weeks.
Like in 24 minutes and 10 rebounds.
Like in the Reggie Johnson of old.
“I definitely wanted to play well and help the team win,” he said.
Johnson had become almost non-existent toward the end of the season, relegated to the bench as coach Jim Larrañaga opted to go with Julian Gamble as his inside man.
When the Hurricanes put away North Carolina in the ACC tournament final a week ago, Johnson spent all but three minutes of the game watching from the bench, with his head in his hand.
“It was tough sitting on the bench, watching games,” Johnson acknowledged. “But, at the end of the day, I’m all about winning the championship. I wasn’t upset. I’m not a guy that’s really into me. You win championships, and that’s the bigger picture.”
As Larrañaga explained it, Gamble had earned the additional playing time.
But he liked what he saw when Johnson entered Friday’s game and left him on the court.
“I thought when Reggie came in, he set ball screens for Shane [Larkin], he defended very well and he got a lot a lot of defensive rebounds,” Larrañaga said. “[On offense], you say whoever’s got the hot hand, you go with them. But it’s true defensively as well. Whoever is defending well and rebounding well, we go with that guy more.”
Johnson understands how it works.
“If you see effort and guys rebounding and getting stops, Coach L lets you play,” he said.
Johnson was doing it to Pacific. He and seldom-used Tonye Jekiri took control of the paint, frustrating the Tigers.
“Obviously, it was tough,” Pacific center Khalil Kelley said. “There were times where I was trying to push them under or try and get around them, and it was pretty hard. They had some big dudes down there.”
In addition to his 10 rebounds — most for him since Jan. 31 — Johnson also contributed seven points.
There was no reason to cry in the aftermath of Friday’s impressive win for the Hurricanes, only to celebrate and look ahead to their next test on Sunday.
He hugged teammate Durand Scott.
“I was saying to Durand, we waited four years to play in this tournament and we finally got our first win,” Johnson said. “That’s my first Tournament win, and we have a chance to do something special on a national stage.”