The upset loss that Johnson’s boys suffered against Shaw in the first round of the 2013 state playoffs weighed on coach Jeff Steele for the past year.
That burden might have gotten a little heavier when the Knights fell behind by 10 points just 15 seconds into the second quarter of their first-round playoff game against Stone Mountain on Saturday night.
Then Johnson got back to doing what it does best — scoring points in bunches.
Rod English poured in a season-high 24 points, Ty Cockfield contributed 21 and James Hodges added 20 to lead the Knights to their ninth straight win, 83-71, over the Pirates in the opening round of the Class AAAA state playoffs in Oakwood.
Johnson (24-5) advances to host Region 5 No. 2 seed Sandy Creek on Tuesday.
“I feel l got a big, huge monkey off my back,” Steele said.
“My kids, I think, just needed more time to settle in. That’s a really athletic team we played.
“We made a few adjustments and got back to our brand of basketball.”
Johnson entered the postseason as a No. 1 seed after winning the Region 8-AAAA title.
Early on, however, it was Region 6-AAAA No. 4 seed Stone Mountain (17-12) in control.
The Pirates knocked down three 3-pointers in the first 2 1/2 minutes of play to take an early 9-4 lead and built their advantage to 23-13 on another 3 by Damani Walker (team-high 25 points) early in the second quarter.
Johnson bounced back with the help of an impressive night at the free throw line.
Led by English, who knocked down 12 of 13 attempts at the foul line, the Knights hit 34 of their 39 free throws (87 percent) in the game.
“At the beginning of the season, I didn’t really hit too much (at the free-throw line), but coach told me to just stay focused and keep shooting,” English said. “Almost every morning I work on free throws and it’s coming around and helping out.”
Johnson went on an 18-7 run midway through the second quarter to take a brief 31-30 lead — its first since lead 4-3 shortly after tip-off, but went into the third quarter trailing 34-31.
The Knights dominated the majority of the third period with a 19-10 run that put them ahead 50-41 late in the period.
“We had to play tighter ‘D,’” Cockfield said. “In the beginning, we were letting them kind of run their plays and get their shots off. We got in their faces a little more and they stopped making shots, luckily.”
Johnson established its first double-digit lead with 4:20 remaining in the fourth quarter when English converted a 3-point play at the free-throw line. The advantage remained 10 points or more until the 1:32-mark, when Cockfield was whistled for goal-tending.
Stone Mountain cut the lead back down to six points on a 3-pointer by Chris Jones with 40 seconds remaining, but that turned out to be the Pirates’ final points of the night.
Cockfield knocked down a pair of free throws with 35.1 seconds left, and English later tacked on four more foul shots to seal the victory.
“I feel like it was great to win the region tournament again, but I get the feeling that’s just not enough for them this year,” Steele said.
“It’s a process and our kids are going to take it one game at a time, and it’s going to take a good team to beat us in here.”