NEW YORK -- Playing on the biggest stage of his life Friday night, Wesley Johnson came through with a performance that thrust him into the national college basketball consciousness.
Johnson, a 6-foot-7 junior forward, put up a game-high 25 points and 8 rebounds and earned tournament MVP honors as the Orange throttled No. 6 North Carolina, 87-71, in the championship game of the 2K Sports Coaches vs. Cancer Classic before 15,552.
Johnson, who sat out all of last season after transferring from Iowa State, said he spoke to Syracuse graduate assistant Gerry McNamara before the game and that got him fired up for the defending NCAA champion Tar Heels. McNamara won Big East tournament titles at the Garden in 2005 and '06 and knows a thing or two about the big stage.
"I was thinking about it," said Johnson, who went 4-for-8 from beyond the arc. "In the Garden I'm talking to Gerry and he said when the lights come on you're going to know it and I went out there and I saw it. And after that, shots started falling."
Carolina (4-1) led 39-37 at the half but the Orange dominated in the second half, outscoring the Heels 50-32 and triggering chants of "Overrated" and "Let's go, Orange."
The Tar Heels missed their first 13 shots of the second half and made five turnovers as Syracuse (4-0) ran off a 22-1 run that turned the tide.
After Johnson hit a 3-pointer from the top of the arc to make it 57-40 with 12:44 to go, Carolina coach Roy Williams called a timeout and chants of "Let's go, Orange" echoed throughout the Garden.
"When they subbed Wesley at the four spot we didn't have an answer for guarding him," said Williams, whose team had a 44-game winning streak against non-conference opponents snapped. "His quickness, his ability to shoot the 3-point shot, his ability to take it to the basket. We didn't have an answer for matching up for that."
A native of Corsicana, Texas, Johnson was a 5-foot-9 guard during his sophomore year at Corsicana (Texas) High School.
He was not highly recruited because he was undersized and was battling a groin injury brought on by a growth spurt.
"He had like two big growth spurts and the last one started around May going into his senior year. And he couldn't play in July. So he played [the AAU circuit], but he played hurt," said Tony Johnson, Wesley's AAU coach with the Dallas Mustangs. "He went from 6-4 to 6-7 in almost a summer."
Wesley bounced around to a couple of prep schools, The Patterson (N.C.) School and Eldon Academy in Petoskey, Mich., before initially committed to Louisiana-Monroe. He decommitted from that school when the coach resigned.
Johnson landed at Iowa State and averaged 12.4 points and 4.0 rebounds two years ago despite battling an ankle injury. As a freshman, he put up 12.3 points and 7.9 boards a game.
After two years at Iowa State, Johnson was on the move again because he felt his relationship with head coach Greg McDermott wasn't what it should have been.
"My relationship with my coach, it just wasn't there my sophomore year and I felt like I had to leave," he said.
Johnson considered Pitt, Ohio State, Syracuse and West Virginia and ended up at Syracuse in May 2008 in part because of Syracuse assistant Rob Murphy.
Murphy is a Detroit native and Johnson's older brother, Craig Carroll, also lived in Detroit. Various high school and AAU coaches in the area got the word out to Johnson that Murphy was a good guy who could be trusted. That, more than anything, helped facilitate Johnson's arrival at Syracuse.
"No question," Murphy said. "Me being from Detroit and his brother being from Detroit and just trusting and having a feel and knowing people who know me."
Johnson visited Syracuse and felt at home right away. Within 48 hours, he canceled his other visits and committed to the Orange.
"When I opened up my recruiting process I got a phone call from coach Murphy and then he talked to my brother and then I came on a visit here and we talked and I met with coach [Jim Boeheim] and he told me what he had in store for me here and I loved it here so I came," Johnson said.
From John Wallace to Carmelo Anthony to Donte Greene, Syracuse has produced a slew of NBA forwards, and Johnson knew he could be the next in that line.
While sitting out last year, Johnson was often the best player in practice while playing against Jonny Flynn, now with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Paul Harris and Eric Devendorf.
"On some days he was the best player at our practices last year and we had Jonny," Murphy said.
After losing Greene to the NBA the year before, the Orange believed that Johnson could have carried them deep into the NCAA Tournament a year ago.
"If we had him last year we would have had the chance to go to the Final Four and win it, period," Murphy said.
Johnson said it was frustrating to sit out last season as the Orange made it to the Big East title game and the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.
This summer, Boeheim touted Johnson as a potential Big East Player of the Year, but no one had seen enough of him to believe it.
The scary thing, Boeheim added, "He's going to get better."