PATASKALA — Sam Johnson has spent enough time on the bench this season, so it was not where the Watkins Memorial boys basketball senior wanted to be Friday.
Sent back into the game with four fouls, Johnson had one more opportunity to make amends. Two driving layups for Johnson lifted Watkins Memorial to a 50-48 victory at rival Licking Heights in Licking County League-Buckeye Division play.
“I was on the bench, and I could tell everybody was down. I knew I wasn’t leading by example — missing shots and getting angry,” said Johnson, who missed the beginning of the season after healing up from football. He had just three points until the final minutes when he twice gave the Warriors (6-6, 2-5) the lead after trailing the Hornets (6-8, 4-3) nearly the whole way.
Johnson’s 3-point play gave Watkins a 48-47 lead. After a tying Heights free throw, his layup with 38 seconds left ended up the game-winner.
“(Assistant coach Marcus Peaks) told me just finish the game,” Johnson added. “I knew I didn’t want to lose, and I knew nobody else did. We had the last two minutes and needed a couple points, so I just put my head down, went to the rim and tried to finish it.”
After a well-played offensive first half with Heights up 37-31, the second half was a slog. Watkins trailed 47-40 when senior Ethan Ryan hit a technical free throw and then a layup in traffic with less than four minutes left.
Heights was able to run about 90 seconds off the clock before the Watkins defense was able to create multiple turnovers. Johnson then took charge, twice driving from the right wing.
“(Johnson) stepped up,” Watkins coach Jamie Caudill said. “The first half, we weren’t closing out on shooters. It was pretty bad. Once we were getting hands up, they weren’t making. It really turned the table.”
Heights fell two games behind Granville at the halfway point of the Buckeye Division season. The Hornets did not have a field goal in the fourth quarter and missed 3 of 4 foul shots during the final minutes.
Watkins left the door open with two misses at the line with 10 seconds left. Heights, however, missed a 3-pointer from the top of the key, and junior Chase Massie grabbed the rebound to set off a Watkins celebration.
“If we make free throws, we win the game,” Heights coach Shaun Fountain said. “I knew they were going to play hard. I knew they were going to play tough. It’s a heated rivalry, and we’ve dominated the last couple years. It’s good for us. … You can’t expedite experience. You have to go through this type of stuff. It hurts now, but we have a lot of season left.”
Ryan hit five 3s and piled up 26 points to keep the Warriors in the game as they trailed 19-16 after one quarter and 41-38 after three quarters.
Junior Cole Massie scored all eight of his points in the first quarter, but Caudill then went deep on his bench, using 10 players. Freshman Ray Hardiman provided a spark later, scoring in the fourth quarter and blocking a layup attempt when Heights had an opportunity to extend its lead.
“This year’s been a roller-coaster. One game we look like we can beat anybody, and the next game we look like anybody can beat us,” Caudill said. “You get a guy out there for a few minutes and see what he can do. If he’s hot, we are going to ride him.”
Eight players scored in the first half as Heights was able to wreak havoc defensively and push the tempo. Senior Jayden Griffith, juniors Alieu Ceesay and Ezra Bobo and sophomore Amadou Ceesay each hit 3s.
Fountain also used 10 Hornets as he attempted to find the combination that could seal a victory. Amadou Ceesay totaled 14 points, and Alieu Ceesay added nine.
“The only way you get the experience is to go through the fire,” Fountain said. “These kids play hard. We know they are going to make mistakes. We talk about growing pains a lot.”
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