Talk about a clutch performance.
While every Arab varsity player in Tuesday’s 5A, Area 15 Tournament semifinal against Scottsboro turned things up a notch – especially on defense – it was sophomore James Ed Johnson who kept coming up big when the Knights needed it the most.
It was Johnson’s basket with 20 seconds left in the second quarter that gave Arab a 15-13 haltime lead (more on that defensive effort later).
It was Johnson’s 3-pointer off a busted play with 8.8 seconds left in the game that lifted the Knights to a 34-34 tie and forced overtime.
It was a pair of free throws by Johnson that gave Arab a 39-36 lead in overtime. In the waning seconds, he sank two more free throws to seal the win, putting Arab up 42-36, which turned out to be the final score.
But Johnson did even more. He grabbed three of the Knights’ four defensive rebounds in the final 25.5 seconds of the game (Blake Kelley got the other), and he made 4 of 4 free throws after being fouled intentionally twice, including on the last rebounds with 8.8 seconds left.
No wonder Arab coach Justin Jonus gave Johnson a chest bump on the floor seconds after the game ended. No wonder he called Johnson up in front of the team in the victorious locker room to give him a celebratory water shower, which Johnson clearly relished as his teammates joyfully crowded around him.
Jonus called it a christening. Johnson then led the team in the final cheer of the celebration.
“It was great feeling all my teammates celebrating with me,” the normally reserved Johnson said a few moments later.
Jonus said the final play of regulation was meant to result in a Johnson 3-point attempt. But Johnson momentarily fumbled the ball under intense pressure by the Wildcats.
He regained it quickly, made a move, then went up for a highly contested shot. It rattled in.
Arab fans breathed a sigh of relief.
“I just knew we had to get some points real bad, and we were down three,” Johnson said of the shot. “It felt great. It kept our season alive.”
Meanwhile, in the other semifinal, host team Guntersville whipped Brewer 77-41. Arab played Guntersville for the area crown last night (Friday) but the biggest of the three games were played Tuesday.
Both Arab and Guntersville advance to the subregional round with their wins. In some order, depending on Friday night’s results, they’ll play either Crossville or Douglas at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
If Arab advances as the Area 15 winner, it would host the Crossville/Douglas loser. If Arab advances as the runner-up, it would play at the Crossville/Douglas winner.
Either way, Arab has an excellent chance to advance to the Northeast Regional at Jacksonville State. There, the Knights would play an opponent still to be determined on Saturday, probably either at 10:30 a.m. or 1:30 p.m.
Meanwhile, in the Class 3A, Area 13 Tournament at New Hope, the host team ended the Brindlee Mountain boys team’s season with a 64-34 win. Caleb Scott led the Lions (5-21) with 10 points and six rebounds.
In the other semifinal, Vinemont defeated Holly Pond 70-53. Both the boys and girls area champions were determined Friday night at New Hope.
Though he came up big at critical moments, Johnson hardly dominated the game against Scottsboro. He finished with nine points – Colby King led the scoring with 14 – but the dominant force in the contest was the defense by both teams.
Jonus marveled that his squad held the high-flying Scottsboro offense to just 13 points in the first half, but the Wildcats in turn held the Knights to just 15 points.
Every shot on both ends was contested. Making a shot was like pulling teeth.
For Arab’s part, a “new” defense installed by Jonus played a role in Arab successfully shutting down the Wildcats. Ironically, he called it the 13 defense, the number of points Scottsboro scored in the first half.
“It shuts down the wing (shooters) and stops the drive through the lane,” Jonus said. “But it does one more thing and I can’t tell you that.”
The game was nip and tuck throughout, though Arab seemed to have the slight upper hand during the first three quarters. It was 8-7 Arab after one period and 15-13 at the half.
King sorta took over in the third quarter, driving for one basket, blocking a shot and losing another basket on a charging call that could have gone either way.
Kelley’s thundering dunk with four minutes left in the quarter made it 19-17, and the teams went scoreless the rest of the period. The combined for just eight points in the quarter.
Things picked up in the fourth quarter. Kent Tyler hit a 3-pointer early in the period to push Arab’s lead to five points. Scottsboro continued to hang tough but back-to-back baskets by King underneath – the last one set up by excellent passing by his teammates – put Arab up 26-21 with just over five minutes left.
But Scottsboro hit a 3 with 4:57 remaining to make it 26-24. A Tyler putback made it 28-24 but Scottsboro was fouled attempting a 3 and made all three free throws.
Scottsboro hit another 3 with 2:22 left to take its first lead of the game, 30-28.
Arab turned the ball over and its hopes of advancing in the playoffs started to dim. It helped when Scottsboro missed a pair of free throws but Arab couldn’t take advantage because of their own free throw shooting woes.
King hit a free throw to make it 30-29 with 59.7 seconds left. But he missed the next one and given another chance because of a lane violation, missed again.
Scottsboro, meanwhile, hit two free throws to go up by three. King got fouled driving to the basket and made two free throws to again cut the lead to one, but then King fouled out with 23.8 to play, and two Scottsboro free throws made it 34-31.
That’s when Johnson hit the 3 that put the game into overtime.
34 before Johnson came away with an offensive rebound and Brooks Malone eventually hit two free throws to make it 36-36.
Tyler hit one of two free throws with 53.4 seconds left in OT to make it 37-36. Scottsboro attempted a 3 and missed and Johnson got the rebound and was fouled. He made both to make it 39-36 with 25.5 seconds left.
Scottsboro tried another 3 and missed and Kelley got the rebound and was fouled. He made one free throw to make it a two-possesion game. Scottsboro tried to drive to the basket this time but still missed and Johnson got the rebound and was fouled.
He hit both to make it 42-36. Then Scottsboro again attempted and missed another 3, and Johnson got the rebound. It was over.
Malone finished with eight points, Tyler with six, Kelley with three and Trevor Miller with two.