With the region tournament less than a week away, every coach is preaching how important it is to play your best basketball right now.
Winning the games that lead into tournament play provides your team with confidence, momentum and a little extra energy that could turn an otherwise disappointing season into a state playoff berth.
But what about the teams that aren’t playing their best basketball right now? What about a team like Johnson, which was tied for first place in the subregion on Jan. 22 but lost two of its next four games and slide to the No. 3 seed? How do the Knights, who haven’t reached the state playoffs since 2005, regroup and prevent another late season slide?
Senior Grant Cagle has an easy answer.
“We just need to focus more,” he said.
Focus like when they beat Gainesville by 15 in the Dec. 15 subregion opener; focus like when they beat Flowery Branch in overtime on Jan. 15.; and focus like when the Knights went to East Hall and defeated the Vikings by 22 to remain tied with Gainesville for first place in Region 7B-AAA.
“I was pretty proud,” Cagle said of his team’s hot start in subregion play. “Our attitude was that we have to stay up and keep playing hard.”
But while the intensity was there following that win over East Hall, the focus was not, and the Knights lost two of their next three subregion games and fell to third place in the subregion.
“We just took our focus off the fundamentals,” coach Jeff Steele said. “We stress it everyday and try and keep it on their minds and make them understand that’s what wins games.”
So does shooting the ball at a high percentage, which is especially important for a Johnson team that relies on the 3-pointer.
“We play better when we shoot it well,” Steele said. “We’re capable of beating a lot of teams if we’re shooting it well.”
The problem is Johnson isn’t shooting it well right now, and in their last two losses, the Knights have shot just 39 percent from the field and 22.5 percent from 3-point range.
“That’s what we rely on,” Cagle said. “I get frustrated when I miss shots because I know that’s my role. When all of us are missing shots it kills our energy.”
According to Cagle, some of the blame for the poor shooting goes to the long season and wear and tear that it puts on your body, Steele thinks it’s just part of the game.
“Teams go through good stretches and bad stretches,” Steele said. “Hopefully we’ll get into a stretch here where we get hot. We’re capable of doing some things in the tournament.”
Opposing coaches know that as well, as the Knights have three players — Tre Dudley, Chris Henry and E.J. Wright — who average double digits in scoring and the emergence of Wright gives them a solid inside presence that provides rebounding and high-percentage shots.
“He’s really stepped up,” Steele said of Wright. “He gives me confidence that we can go inside to him.”
Also providing confidence will be Friday in the Knights’ regular season finale against Lambert, which is also senior night.
“We really need to shoot well,” Cagle said. “If we can get some confidence in our shooting Friday, then that’ll be a good sign going into the region tournament.”
That momentum will be needed in a tournament that Steele said “there’s no games you feel comfortable with.”
“It’s parity at its best,” he said. “A lot of teams in both subregions can beat us.”
With two wins in the region tournament, Johnson will earn a berth in the state tournament and fulfill a preseason goal set by the seniors.
“We’re hungry to go,” Cagle said of reaching the state tournament. “We’ve talked about it, and that’s the main goal: to make it to state and go as far as we can.”