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Johnson, Leopards playing best basketball when it counts

By: Matt Long, Sports Editor
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Tony Johnson is playing the best basketball of his career and his team, the Lafayette Leopards, is playing its best basketball of the season.

The Leopards have won five straight games with Johnson, a 2009 Folsom High graduate, playing a prominent role in each win, as the team opens the Patriot League Tournament tonight against Holy Cross as the No. 2 seed.

In the team’s last five games, Johnson has hit a pair of consecutive game-winning shots in the final five seconds, equaled a career-high with 29 points in another game and in all five games has scored at least five points over his season’s scoring average of 12 points per game. Johnson is averaging 21 points per game over the five-game stretch, shooting 68 percent from the field (37-of-54), 53 percent from three-point range (7-of-13) and 88 percent from the line (24-of-27).

“I’m feeling great,” Johnson said. “I’ve looked to be aggressive and it’s been working for me. When I’m aggressive it helps in all aspects; I get into the lane and then others have to provide help defense and then I’m able to kick it out to my teammates. We have a lot of momentum heading into the playoffs.”

Johnson continued, “I can’t tell you the last time we’ve won four (now five) games in a row. This is the best run I’ve had and it’s the best run for our team since I’ve been here. I’m just going to try to stay aggressive and create more opportunities for myself and my teammates. It’s been working great.”

Johnson’s stellar play started with a game-winning pull-up jumper over Bucknell on Feb. 16 that gave the Leopards a 63-62 win. Four days later, Johnson knocked down a three-pointer to give his team a 79-76 win over Holy Cross.

Johnson is not unfamiliar with game-winning shots. As a junior at Folsom High in 2008, Johnson hit a long jumper at the buzzer to give the Bulldogs a 66-65 win over Rodriguez.

“It’s hard to compare the shots, but it did bring back memories,” Johnson said. “In high school that was so special playing with guys like Pat (Akins), Scott (Moore), Tucker (Horwath), and Brandon and Kori (Babineaux), guys I’d played with all my life. All game-winning shots are special in their own way. They’re all equal and they’re always fun.”

On Feb. 24 against Lehigh, Johnson equaled a career-high 29 points in a 79-71 win in a game he made 10-of-12 shots from the field, including five-of-eight from three-point range. For the performance against Holy Cross and Lehigh, Johnson earned the Lou Henson Award for National Player of the Week honors.

Johnson scored 17 points in an 80-67 win on the road at Colgate on Feb. 27 and added 22 points Saturday in an 80-72 win over American on a day when he and his fellow senior teammates were honored for their career accomplishments and contributions to the Lafayette program.

Johnson’s superb play is rewarding to him because it’s his senior year and because the team is playing well, but all individual accolades mean little else to Johnson. He would trade in everything for a trip to the NCAA tournament. To do that, the Leopards have to win the Patriot League Tournament, starting with tonight’s game against Holy Cross. The semi-final round will be held Saturday with the finals slated for March 13. Bucknell is the No. 1 seed in the tournament.

“It’s my last run and it’s special that I’m playing well,” Johnson said. “I want to go out on a high note and a NCAA Tournament berth would be awesome. To do that we have to win the Patriot League Championship and there are a lot of tough teams in our league. Anything is possible, though, and we’re playing well right now and we can beat anybody.”