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Johnson boys look to avoid another first-round playoff upset loss
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Jeff Steele doesn’t see many weaknesses in his Johnson boys’ basketball team this season. That might be why the Knights have plenty of confidence heading into Saturday night’s Class AAAA first-round matchup against Stone Mountain.

“I don’t know what I would do against us, really, defensively,” said Steele, the Knights’ head coach. “We have enough shooters where if you play a zone, we can beat you. If you play man, we can get by you with our quickness.

“That’s what makes it tough to play us, in my opinion. A lot of high school teams, even those that win state championships, have a couple weak players in there. I don’t feel like we do. That’s why we are where we are, I think.”

Despite the confidence in his team, Steele knows the Knights (23-5) don’t need to think that playoff success is a given.

After all, they were in a similar situation heading into the state playoffs last season, with a 24-4 record and a region title. The momentum the Knights had built throughout the regular season and region tournament last year came to a screeching halt with a 54-49 upset loss to Shaw, a No. 4 seed, in the first round.

It’s a loss that has motivated the Johnson players for a full calendar year. It’s also a loss that Steele has been reminding his players about since they routed Eastside 88-67 in the region championship game on Tuesday night.

“It is definitely motivating,” senior Carter Cagle said. “It was tough last year. We shouldn’t have lost.”

When looking back at last year’s playoff loss, Johnson players admit they weren’t nearly as focused as they should have been heading into a state playoff game. They entered with a “nobody can beat us” mentality, according to junior guard Ty Cockfield.

Cagle agreed.

“We came in overthinking them. We came in and were like, ‘this is easy,’” Cagle said. “We thought past it, and they came out ready to play and we weren’t.”

That’s why this year, the Knights are playing with a one-game-at-a-time focus, especially since they have the opportunity to host every state playoff round through the quarterfinals.

“We’re a lot more prepared. Last year we weren’t really ready,” Cockfield said. “This year, we have a great chance to get to the final four.”

Another factor in last year’s first-round loss was a lack of experience in the postseason, and the lack of being challenged throughout the regular season and region tournament. This season, Steele arranged for the Knights to have one of the toughest non-region schedules in the area, consisting of some of the strongest teams from various classifications.

“Not to down our region, but it is relatively weak,” Steele said. “So we weren’t battle tested (last year), we felt. We went out and played Athens Christian twice (this season), we played Whitefield Academy, we played Buford.

“I’m not sure we could play a better team than Athens Christian if we would win the whole thing, and we beat them twice.”

The end result of playing a tougher schedule this season is the Knights are feeling like they’ve overcome greater challenges heading into the state playoffs, compared to last year when they didn’t know what kind of physical play to expect in postseason basketball.

“It prepared us. Playing against athletes earlier, like Athens Christian, it helped us out a lot,” Cockfield said. “Because we know what we are going to face.”

Johnson enters the state tournament riding an eight-game winning streak in which the Knights have outscored opponents by more than 31 points per game. That includes the 21-point shellacking they handed Eastside — the last team to beat Johnson this year — in the region title game earlier this week.

“I think we see the end,” Cagle said of the season. “The end is near but we don’t want it to end, so we have to step our game up.”

Johnson’s strength is its ability to score. In fact, the Knights have scored more points (2,268) than any other team in the state, in any classification, this season.

Cockfield and senior James Hodges are two of the Knights’ most dangerous weapons. Cockfield is averaging 18 points, five assists and seven rebounds per game, while Hodges is averaging a double-double with 20 points and 12 rebounds per game.

It’s that production from Cockfield and Hodges that has started to draw a lot of attention from their opponents, allowing other players on Johnson’s roster to step up and play larger roles later in the season.

“The thing we have with our team, in my opinion, that a lot of teams don’t, is we have those little pieces that fit together,” Steele said. “Ty can get into the paint, Drew (Dunham) is our quarterback and gets us organized, Carter is a shooter, Rod (English) is a slasher, Sean (Wiese) is a shooter and then you have James inside.”

While scoring is great, Steele said that while it might sound like a cliché, doing the small things and playing tough defense is what will win a state championship.

“You have to rebound the basketball, you have to make your shots, you have to make your free throws,” he said.

“I’m a defensive minded guy. Yeah, we can score, but I take pride on the defensive end of it.”

If the Knights don’t do the little things and play quality defense, their season could end with another disappointing loss in the first round. But if the Knights play as well as they’ve proven they can, they could end up being the first team in Johnson’s history to advance past the Sweet 16.

“I’m going to play with my heart,” Cockfield said. “Whatever happens, happens. But we are just going to try and get this win.”

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