Stanley Johnson Stays The Course

Stanley Johnson, pictured here with his high school coach Gary McKnight of Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.), chose the University of Arizona over Kentucky. He along with three other national top 6 recruits announced their intentions on Friday and the decisions have major ramifications for college basketball next season. Photo: Ronnie Flores

Stanley Johnson and Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.) coach Gary McKnight hope to be posing for this picture for the fourth consecutive year at the conclusion of the CIF state championships March 29. No player has ever played a role on four consecutive CIF state championship teams in the highest classification. Photo: Ronnie Flores

No. 3 Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.) gutted out a double overtime victory over No. 43 Etiwanda (Etiwanda, Calif.) in a CIF SoCal Open Division Regional semifinal thriller on Tuesday night. It kept alive an unbeaten season for the Monarchs and senior forward Stanley Johnson wouldn’t have it any other way.

Motivation is not always hard to come by. It can be manipulated from nearly anything, but it’s not always easily maintained. For Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.) senior forward Stanley Johnson, his goal is so close he can nearly touch it.

Johnson’s goal of a fourth consecutive CIF state title almost came to a crashing halt against Etiwanda (Etiwanda, Calif.) in a Tuesday night CIF SoCal Open Division Regional semifinal game in Santa Ana. Mater Dei hasn’t lost a home game in Johnson’s four years as a starting forward, but when Etiwanda’s DeLewis Johnson hit a 3-pointer with three and a half minutes remaining, it gave Etiwanda, ranked No. 43 in the Student Sports FAB 50, a 47-42 lead over the No. 3 ranked team in the country. From there on out, Johnson had that look in his eye like, “it’s time for me to take over.”

“I really can’t explain it (the feeling I get), it’s just my competitive nature,” Johnson said. “I realized this could be my last time playing high school basketball.”

Johnson answered Etiwanda’s 3-pointer with a lay-up and a 3-pointer of his own to tie the game at 47-47. To say, Johnson put Mater Dei on his back and led them to victory would be an understatement. The Arizona-bound forward and returning Student Sports All-American scored 28 of his game-high 38 points in the fourth quarter and two overtime periods to lead Mater Dei to a 67-64 victory and improve its record to 33-0 with potentially two more games in the season.

If Mater Dei wins those, Johnson will be the first player ever to play a significant role on four consecutive state title-winning teams of the highest CIF classification and Mater Dei would finish no worse than No 3 in the FAB 50. A No. 3 finish would tie its highest-ever rating set accomplished during the 2002-03 season when the Monarchs won the CIF Division II state title. That was the same season LeBron James led St. Vincent-St. Mary (Akron, Ohio) to a FAB 50 No. 1 finish.

It Wasn’t Easy

Etiwanda usually gives Mater Dei all it can handle. In fact, the Eagles defeated Mater Dei in last season’s CIF Southern Section Division I-AA final and was considered the state’s best threat to dethrone the Monarchs this season. When its all said and done, The Eagles still very well might be that team, as Etiwanda (which finished its season 27-5) had ample opportunities to win the game.

With 19.4 seconds remaining, Etiwanda’s Jordan McLaughlin, a USC-bound point guard, was fouled in the act of shooting and his team trailing 50-49. McLaughlin only made one free throw. With about 10 seconds remaining in the first overtime, McLaughlin weaved in and out of the lane for a difficult lay-in and missed on a play where a foul easily could have been called.

In the second overtime, Johnson missed a free throw that could have given Mater Dei a two-point lead. Moments later, McLaughlin only made one of two or else he could have given his team a 62-61 lead with about a minute remaining on the clock. With the shot clock running down on the next possession, Johnson put a dagger in the hearts of Etiwanda fans when he nailed a 30-foot plus 3-pointer to give his team a 64-61 lead with 24.2 seconds showing on the clock. Still, it wasn’t over. If McLaughlin, who displayed strong determination of his own by playing in the regional with a torn labrum, didn’t miss the front end of a 1-and-1 situation with 18.3 seconds remaining or lose the ball out of bounds on Etiwanda’s last possession, Johnson’s quest might have come to an end.

McLaughlin got the ball on a U or “Iverson” cut with 4.2 second remaining, but before he could get up court, he lost control of the ball and it went out of bounds near mid-court. Johnson put his arms around “J-Mac” and whispered a few words as the clock ran out.

“I said to him, ‘you’re a great player with a competitive nature,'” Johnson said. “I’ll text him later to let him know as a competitor and player, I can feel him for losing a game like that.”

Keeping Focused

It seems to be growing by the game, and it’s eminent whether Mater Dei wins or loses or if Johnson plays well or below his own lofty standards. There are kids seeking autographs, young adults who want to take pictures and even young ladies who would love to have a word with him, in addition to the usual media requests.

“Whether I have a good or bad game, it’s the same affect,” Johnson said. “That has been steady over the past two years, but I have the same hunger. I have to push those things to the side when the next game comes.”

After the Etiwanda win, Johnson’s mother, Karen Taylor, even had a chat with 6-foot-6 Dante Exum, a 18-year old from Australia considered one of the better prospects in the 2014 NBA Draft class. Johnson and his family are used to the attention, but Johnson predicted what the topic of conversation would be when the hoopla died down.

“They’ll probably talk about the free throws I missed,” said Johnson, who made 13-of-17 in addition to grabbing 14 rebounds while McLaughlin scored 21 points in a losing effort. “My family keeps me level-headed. When we talk about the things that went wrong, I come back to life, back to reality.”

Just before doing a media interview, Johnson greets friend A.J. Gasporra, a former player at Cal-St. San Marcos and Artesia (Lakewood, Calif.) who played professionally in Mexico this season. Gasporra is a tough costumer and in local circles is known as the unsung hero on Artesia teams that featured current NBA star James Harden and former prep phenom Renardo Sidney in 2006 and 2007. Right away, Gasporra starts going in on Johnson about the free throws.

“You see, you see, what I mean. I told you what they were going to talk about!” Johnson pointed out.

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Filed under national player of the year, team rankings

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