Johnson forging forward as Norse visit No. 1 UK
WEST LAFAYETTE — Todd Johnson could’ve grabbed on to a why-me attitude after the way events transpired down the stretch of Northern Kentucky’s achingly close 77-76 season-opening men’s college basketball loss Friday, Nov. 8, at Purdue.
If anything, though, Johnson was blaming himself and doing it matter-of-factly rather than angrily.
Hey, there’s no time to get down.
Johnson and the Norse have another game Sunday, and not just any game, but a visit to Rupp Arena to face the No. 1-rated club in all the land, Kentucky. The contest is set for 4 p.m. on ESPN3.
“For sure,” Johnson said Friday of whether NKU’s performance against the Boilermakers of the big, bad Big Ten will encourage him and his young teammates in the face of Sunday’s challenge. “Our team had a tremendous effort tonight. We knew from the start we could be in the game. We just wanted to come out and play hard. And (Sunday), it’s going to be a hard road trip, but everybody’s just gotta come together and fight hard again.”
The Norse will be a 27-point underdog to the Wildcats based strictly on the computerized Sagarin ratings, but they were also a 21-point dog at Purdue.
Led by Johnson, NKU shrugged at those odds Friday.
The 5-foot-9 point guard and Elkhart Memorial graduate, in his first collegiate start, struck for 12 points, a game-high 11 rebounds, four assists and a game-high three steals in a game-high 36 minutes.
Yet, he also came out for the final 53 seconds after playing all those other minutes, later explaining that he’d been cramping in both thighs and asked out.
“I’d rather somebody go out there with fresh legs than me cramping up and turning the ball over,” Johnson said.
When Johnson exited, the Norse led 76-72.
Errick Peck nailed a 3-pointer a few seconds later to pull the Boilers to within 76-75.
Then, after Jordan Jackson — who had been 8-of-8 at the line — missed two free throws for NKU with 19 seconds left, Ronnie Johnson made two for Purdue with 13 seconds remaining for what proved the final count.
The Norse had three shots on their final, desperate possession, but couldn’t convert.
NKU coach Dave Bezold said not having Johnson on the floor at the end was a setback.
“It really hurt, because there’s a primary ball-handler, shooter, and he was playing really well defensively,” Bezold said. “And he did a tremendous job on the boards. To have him off the floor was tough. I thought he did a tremendous job all night long handling the tough pressure that (the Boilers) apply to you all the time.”
“I just gotta eat better and prepare my body better,” Johnson said of why he cramped up.
He said the cramps, which he had not suffered since high school, were not due to playing the 36 minutes.
“I don’t think so,” Johnson said. “I think I’m in tremendous shape, but you just gotta be careful what you eat and how you prepare.”
In light of his role on a team with no active seniors, it’s even more important to do so.
“I knew last year I was going to have to be more of a leader,” Johnson said. “That’s why I’m able to (play more), by being a leader.”
Not that his numbers hurt his cause Friday. His 12 points came on four 3-pointers, all from the left wing, in six tries outside the arc. He did miss a couple prime, close-range shots that he’d like to have back, but then there’s also those 11 rebounds, gathered by the shortest player on either side.
“What?” Johnson said, his eyes bugging out when asked about the 11 boards. “I did not realize I had 11 rebounds, but Coach said the guards needed to rebound when our bigs were blocking their bigs out.”
Johnson said he was glad he could play well in front of the 100 or so fans who came from the Elkhart area to watch, about 80 of them as part of two groups.
“Almost all of that was my mom’s doing,” Johnson said, “but I love everybody that came to support me and thank them very much.”