Thursday, March 11, 2010

Griz Johnson Sets New Standard

Wow. That's about all I can say about the play of Montana's Anthony Johnson (right), who set a new standard for excellence in the Big Sky Conference tournament championship in Ogden last night.

Johnson set a conference tournament record by pouring in 42 points -- 34 in the second half -- to lead the Grizzlies to a 66-65 win after they trailed by 20 points at halftime. Johnson's performance was truly epic, one of those efforts that Big Sky fans will be talking about for the rest of their lives. Consider the circumstancs:

  • Montana looked absolutely dead in the water at half time, flat and lifeless. Weber was getting every loose ball, making every hustle play and totally dominating the game, while the Griz turned the ball over 14 times in the first 20 minutes.

  • This was in Weber's house, where the Wildcats have won 86 percent of their games under coach Randy Rahe, in front of a largely hostile crowd that didn't want to see their team squander home court advantage in the conference tournament for the second year in a row.

  • The stage was huge and brightly lit -- on national television (ESPN-2), with an NCAA tournament berth on the line.

  • By the middle of the second half, everyone knew Johnson was the guy -- he was making every play, taking every important shot, and Weber was doing everything it could to keep the ball out of hands.

In the end, none of that mattered. Johnson scored 25 of Montana's last 26 points, including a two-pointer that gave the Griz their ultimate lead with 15 seconds left. "It's hard when somebody's unconscious like that," said Pocatello High graduate Nick Hansen, who got to witness history up close and personal as the Wildcats' shooting guard. "Even when you have a hand in his face and he's still making it. I don't really think we let down defensively, I think that he just played out of this world."

In my 30-plus years of watching Big Sky Conference basketball, I would have to say only the 36-point effort by Weber State's Harold "The Show" Arceneaux in the Wildcats' win over North Carolina compares with Johnson's effort last night. Sure, Idaho's Orlando Lightfoot had a few of those "unconscious" nights when nobody in the building could stop him, but not with an NCAA tournament berth on the line on national television. Johnson, who was just about everyone's pre-season pick for Big Sky Player of the Year, had the added satisfaction of putting on his show in front of Weber's Damian Lillard, who actually won the POY honor when the Wildcats captured the regular season title again.

So Johnson, the senior out of Tacoma, and his teammates head to the "Big Dance," where they will likely be a 15 or 14 seed. The Wildcats will have to settle for an NIT berth, and Northern Colorado will wait in the wings to see if the CBI or CIT tournaments call. But all three Big Sky teams will be hard-pressed to follow the performance that Anthony Johnson provided Wednesday night in Ogden. It's a night Big Sky basketball fans will never forget.

--Brad B.

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