Lucas Johnson of the St. Jean de Brebeuf Braves high school basketball team knows his role and plays it to perfection.
The 5-foot-11 guard came off the bench to score eight points, including the go-ahead three-point basket with 12.5 seconds left, helping the Braves defeat the Gaels, 52-49, at the Cathedral gym on Tuesday (Feb. 11). And with that thrilling Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic Athletic Association quarter-final playoff win, sixth-place Brebeuf advances to play the first-place St. Thomas More Knights on Thursday (Feb. 13).
Elsewhere in opening-round playoff action, the second-place Cardinal Newman Cardinals topped the seventh-place Bishop Ryan Celtics 61-38 and the St. Mary Crusaders got past the Bishop Tonnos Titans, 71-66. The two-time defending champions from Newman will play host to the Crusaders on Thursday (Feb. 13).
After Johnson’s three-pointer, the Brebeuf defence stiffened and Cathedral turned the ball over due to the possession arrow. The Gaels then fouled and Rommel Calura sank both free-throw attempts to complete the scoring with 5.9 seconds left.
Cathedral launched one last three-point attempt but Johnson – a senior player on a squad full of Grade 11s — grabbed the rebound and the buzzer sounded.
“This is my second year on the senior team and fourth year playing basketball at Brebeuf,” Johnson said. “Every year except this year I’ve been a starter. The coaches gave me a new role. They call me the Manu Ginobili of the team. I come off the bench to kind of give a little spark. That’s the role I’ve been playing this year.” Ginobili plays in the National Basketball Association for the San Antonio Spurs.
It was the first playoff victory Johnson has experienced in a Braves uniform. His final basket answered a sprawling and clutch three-pointer by Dylan Millar of Cathedral with 32 seconds remaining.
“The play we ended up running wasn’t even close to the one we drew up,” Johnson said of his bucket from behind the arc. “When the ball left my hand, I knew it was going in. I felt no pressure. I zoned out and just hit the shot.”
The leading scorer for Brebeuf was 6-foot-5 centre Veron Kalonji, who tossed in 15 points. Mohan Kazi added eight points, Calura had seven and Nathan Bruzzese chipped in with six.
Cathedral, which battled back after trailing by 11 points at the intermission, got 13 points by Daniel Dzierzawski (all but two coming his second half). Kareem Kollins had 12 and Braedon Brown added seven points for the Gaels, who ended up in third place with a 9-3 record.
“This was the fourth time we’ve played them this season,” Cathedral coach Mark Maga said. “We beat them three times in a row. It’s always hard to get that fourth win.
“All the credit goes to Brebeuf. They were ready. Their guy stepped up and hit a big shot.”
Braves coach Perry Bruzzese said all the pressure was on Cathedral and not his players.
“We had all the confidence in the world,” Bruzzese said. “Our guys were relaxed and they executed the game plan to a tee. We made them feel a little uncomfortable in their offensive sets.
“During the time out, when we were down, I looked into the kids’ faces and I saw they still believed they could pull this out. It was a quality win for us.”
Brebeuf was sailing along in first place earlier this season when it had four victories taken away as a result of forfeiture (an administrative error during a player transfer). That sent the Braves to last place. They finished with a 3-9 record – a dangerous sixth-place team.
Said Bruzzese: “Our kids went through a lot of adversity this year. I watched these guys grow from boys, basically, to young men. When we had the points taken away from us, it made us stronger as a team. We stuck together and persevered.”
Bruzzese said Johnson has developed into a leader and the Braves also got a solid performance by Kalonji. “Veron has become a force for us. He got a lot of rebounds at key points down the stretch. And for a big guy, he’s got some range. He hit three 3s.”
At St. Mary, the fourth-place Crusaders got 16 points apiece from Shawn Carey and Macbeth Madziba in their victory over the Titans. Maciek Wojcik and Adam Carnicelli replied with 25 and 12 points, respectively, for Tonnos.