Coming to play in crunch time

Matt Goul

Johnson brings his game to feed Flashes in win

Kevin Warzynski emerges from a sea of green jerseys to score during Saturday’s game. Kent State faces Central Michigan tonight at 7 at the M.A.C. Center.

Credit: Matt Goul

Mechie Johnson was only warming the bench a week ago. But now, someone else is going to have to keep it warm for him.

Johnson came off the bench to spark Kent State’s second-half rout of Ohio in an 82-65 win Saturday night at the M.A.C. Center. The win puts Kent State in a six-way tie for the second-best record in the Mid-American Conference entering the MAC tournament. Kent State (19-11, 11-7 MAC), which gets the fifth seed after tiebreakers, will play Central Michigan (10-17, 4-14 MAC) tonight in the first round.

The performance against Ohio (17-10, 11-7 MAC) by Johnson electrified his teammates to a second-half turnaround after a sluggish start. A 49-point second half outburst came with not only Johnson’s breakout, but junior point guard and captain DeAndre Haynes’ return to form. Haynes scored 16 points. Junior guard Jay Youngblood added 14, and senior guard Jason Edwin scored 17.

But it became the sophomore’s second half to shine. He had not had many.

“Dre, as my captain, he never gave up on me,” Johnson said. “None of the players did. They kept telling me my chance was going to come. I feel good that everybody stuck by me.”

Johnson played 15 minutes or more for the second straight game, but there’s one considerable difference. He could do no better than coming off the bench in a blowout before Saturday night’s game. Johnson played 22 minutes and scored 11 points at Miami, but it was after the score was out of reach in a 70-45 loss.

This time there was no blowout scenario.

Johnson was in and made a difference. He changed momentum with his defense on the ball. He gained momentum with the ball in his hands.

The Flashes led by four midway through the second half when Johnson blocked Ohio guard Jeremy Fears’ shot on his way to the basket. Johnson’s swat set up Haynes, who found Scott Cutley to push the lead to 57-51.

Johnson’s defense was not done there, nor was Fears’ chance at redemption. It ended with another rejection on Ohio’s next possession. From the front, the side or behind, Johnson had imposed his defense — specifically on Fears, who came off a 33-point performance against Buffalo. Maybe fear was all the Bobcats had after Johnson asserted his defense.

The lead was up to eight when Johnson strapped on Fears around the perimeter. A five-second violation was about to be called when Fears took a 30-second timeout.

Soon after, Haynes drained a 3-pointer to put the Flashes up 62-53. The lead was pushed to 10 when Cutley hopped through defenders to score while being fouled. The three-point play was made after his layup took a bounce off the front of the rim and in. If that did not seal Kent State’s win with 4:57 left, Johnson’s baskets did.

The lead increased to 71-59 when Johnson scored off a feed from junior guard Jay Youngblood. Johnson then added his own and-one play after Kevin Warzynski found him slashing to the basket.

For the first time since his senior season at Warrensville Heights two years ago, Johnson was making plays to help his team win.

“There’s not one guy on the team I respect more,” Kent State coach Jim Christian said. “I’ve talked to him about it one-on-one. This is a kid that works every single day. He was able to handle adversity. He wasn’t playing as much as he would have liked, but he never got down. He kept practicing hard every day. We kept telling him there’s going to be an opportunity for you.”

Johnson finished with nine points, two blocks and two assists. All of his production came in the second half after playing only two minutes in the first.

Maybe that had something to do with the slow start.

Ohio led through most of the first half. Its lead was 35-33 at halftime after Haynes hit the first of his two 3s. Kent State did not take the lead for good until Youngblood broke a 49-49 tie with a bunny hop around defenders in the paint. The Flashes outscored the Bobcats 33-16 for the final 10:24 with Youngblood’s play. It led into Johnson’s arrival from the bench and Haynes’ return from it.

Haynes had sat on the bench for long periods of time during his recent slump. He even sat during a chunk of time in the first half after picking up his second foul.

When he returned to the floor, he was a little more exuberant.

“I can always look at his facial expression, how into the game he is and how much emotion he plays with,” Christian said. “You can watch his reactions after he makes a good play or a bad play.”

Contact men’s basketball reporter Matt Goul at [email protected].