If the Johnson boys have any remaining doubters this season, they’ll need to find a new knock against the Knights. There will be no second-round exit for the team this season.
Ty Cockfield scored 33 points, Roderick English added 24 while playing through an ankle injury, and the Knights defeated West Laurens 75-60 on Saturday at home in the second round of the Class AAAA state playoffs to earn their first trip to the quarterfinals under coach Jeff Steele.
The victory also marks the first time Johnson's boys have ever won two games in a single postseason run. The program's only other appearance in the quarterfinals came 35 years ago in 1980, when the state tournament consisted of only 16 teams and a lone playoff win was all it took to reach the "elite eight."
“That’s been the knock, ‘they can’t get past the second round,’ and so forth and so on, but these kids that I’ve got here this year are just different,” Steele said. “They have so much resolve.”
Fourth-ranked Johnson improved to 29-0 with the victory and will face top-ranked Jonesboro in the quarterfinals on Wednesday. A coin flip will determine where the game will be played.
The Knights’ 15-point win over West Laurens (22-9) featured surprisingly little drama in the last few minutes of a game that was back-and-forth much of the night and tied 41-41 with under a minute to play during the third quarter.
Cockfield and English scored 11 points apiece in the final period to put the game away after being held to five combined points during the third period, when the Knights saw a 10-point halftime lead evaporate.
English’s mere availability for the game appeared questionable after he left the Knights’ first-round game against Southeast Whitfield late in the third quarter with an ankle injury. He did not return to that game after being helped off the floor with what was diagnosed as a grade-1 sprain, and he couldn’t even leave the gymnasium without some assistance.
Regardless, the senior forward said he was “determined” to play Saturday night.
“I was not missing this game,” English said.
“After our last game I left on crutches and it was pretty painful, but coming into tonight with all the treatment, I felt pretty good.”
The Region 8-AAAA No. 1 seed Knights needed English to overcome a West Laurens squad whose size tested Johnson through the first three quarters.
The Knights played their best when they didn’t have to contend with Justin Smith (14 points), the Raiders’ 6-foot-8 senior center. He spent most of the second quarter on the bench after getting into early foul trouble, allowing Johnson to build a 13-point lead late in the period and carry a 32-22 edge into halftime.
Cockfield and English combined for all but two of the Knights’ first-half points. They did most of their second-quarter damage at the 3-point line, where they accounted for nine of the team's 17 points.
“We knew we were going to have to knock down shots because they have some tall people and they were blocking some of our shots,” English said. “We knew that once they came out of the game we had to take it to them (at the rim). When they brought them back in we knew that we had to knock down shots and do our thing.”
Smith’s defensive presence made all the difference for the Raiders, the Region 2 No. 2 seed, early in the third quarter. He and teammate DeAngelo Wilcher (team-high 21 points) combined to block four Johnson shots during a span of five possessions, and the Raiders did their best to stop Cockfield and English from getting the basketball in their hands.
Wilcher led an 8-0 run during that stretch to narrow the gap to 32-30, before Mitchell Dunham ended Johnson’s drought on a floater in the lane with 4:45 remaining in the third period.
West Laurens continued its push and tied the game on two separate occasions later in the quarter, including 41-41 on a putback by Wilcher. That basket came just 33 seconds after English picked up his fourth foul, and it had the potential to be a big momentum changer.
Instead, Cockfield answered with a putback of his own on the other end, and teammate Michael Garcia turned a fast-break layup into an old-fashioned three-point play at the foul line with 24.4 seconds on the clock to give Johnson a 46-41 lead going into the fourth quarter. Garcia scored five of his seven points in the third quarter.
“If you’re going to face-guard Rod and Ty, there’s going to be driving lanes and opportunities for other people, and that’s what we're good at,” Steele said. “I’ve seen it all. Whatever people want to do to us is fine, because we’ve experienced everything this year that we can experience."
With Johnson still leading by five, 51-46, early in the fourth period, Daemonte Nicholson found Andrew Sims in the paint for a basket that boosted the lead to seven. Moments later, English drove the baseline and got the ball to roll in, further padding the advantage to 55-46 with 5:30 remaining in the game.
Fourteen seconds later, Smith picked up his fifth foul while trying to steal the ball from Nicholson at half-court. Smith, who appeared to taunt Cockfield after blocked shots earlier in the game, drew a technical as he talked to a referee and asked to shake the official’s hand while walking off the court.
“I watched film on him and talked to other coaches about him, and we knew that he was prone to fouls, and you’ve got to go at people (like that),” Steele said. “ ... Obviously he got a little frustrated and got ‘T’ed’ up, which helped our cause, but (in the) third quarter he came out ready to play.”
Cockfield knocked down a pair of free throws after the technical, and Garcia blew by his defender for a layup on the ensuing possession to boost the Knights’ edge to 59-46.
Cockfield and English each added another basket before the 12-0 run was over to put Johnson comfortably ahead, 63-46, with 4:10 remaining in the game. The Knights remained ahead by no fewer than 12 points the rest of the way.
“We had to get in transition,” Cockfield said. “That's what we do best.
“They kind of slowed us down (for a while), and when they slowed us down, they started making us play their game. All we had to do was get out and run.”
The Knights' furious finish bookended an equally successful start in which they jumped out to a 7-0 lead and forced West Laurens to call a timeout to regroup after only 1:44 had ticked off the game clock. Johnson led 15-9 after that opening period.
West Laurens’ Garrel Quainton (14 points) was the only other scorer to finish the game in double figures.