OAKWOOD — If it wasn’t already clear who the best team in Region 8-AAAA was, the Johnson Knights ended the discussion Thursday.
Led by lone senior Montrell McKenzie on senior night in the de facto regular season region championship game, the Knights routed Eastside 90-70 to clinch the No. 1 seed for the region tournament.
Johnson (21-4, 8-0) will play the winner of the tournament play-in game, either Walnut Grove or Lumpkin County, at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday in Oakwood. The Knights only need one more win to get back to the state tournament for the first time since 2010.
On paper, the No. 1 seed is the easiest way to get that done, and Johnson wanted that spot.
“We were focused — we knew what we wanted,” Knights coach Jeff Steele said. “We wanted that No. 1 seed and we knew this was the game we needed to win to get it.”
McKenzie displayed that focus, leading all scorers with 32 points and grabbing 23 rebounds as one of four Johnson scorers in double figures.
His dunk off a sequence that included a steal by James Hodges, a pass to Ty Cockfield and another to McKenzie for the slam, put Johnson ahead 46-22 with 1:40 left in the first half and capped a 10-2 Knights run, one of many runs on the night.
“I just didn’t want to lose, so I gave it everything I had,” McKenzie said. “But we can’t let up now, we can’t take anything for granted.”
It’s true, Johnson has yet to secure so much as a state tournament berth, but the Knights couldn’t be entering the tournament any hotter, having won 11 straight — including all eight region games — and outscoring opponents by an average of 73-47.5 during the streak.
They didn’t skip a beat entering the game against Eastside (14-8, 6-2), scoring the last six points of the opening quarter to take a 26-9 lead after one, and then a 51-27 lead at the half, at which point McKenzie already had 20 points and 15 boards.
“It was his senior night, so he came out with even more motivation than usual,” Steele said of McKenzie before adding with a chuckle, “Too bad we can’t have senior night every night.”
It won’t be senior night again, but the Knights will stay home for at least the extent of the region tournament and, if they do well, at least a couple of games into the state tournament.
Johnson would face either Chestatee or Stephens County in the second round of the region tournament with a win.
If they play like they did Thursday, neither game should be too much trouble for the Knights, who displayed the vast improvement they’ve made this season by finishing 26 of 34 from the free throw line in a game that saw 49 combined fouls, 26 of them by Johnson.
Hodges added 18 points for the Knights, Cockfield scored 14 and Drew Dunham chipped in 10.
Quindarrious Russell led the Eagles with 29 points and Anthony Henderson added 14. Eastside, which will play Monroe Area in the first round, finished 19 of 27 from the free throw line.
McKenzie, who said he was pleased to see the Knights’ free throw numbers improve so much from early in the season, summed up the regular season, and the turnaround from a 13-14 campaign last season, succinctly.
“It’s our character,” he said. “All that work we put in in the offseason carried over.”
EASTSIDE GIRLS 62, JOHNSON 24: Ketoya Carruth had six points to lead the Lady Knights (0-25, 0-7 Region 8-AAAA), who finished last in the region and will play at Walnut Grove at 3 p.m. Saturday in Loganville in the tournament play-in game.
Jazzmine Cook led Eastside with 19 points.