Jacob Johnston is making it look almost effortless, and nobody in Erie is complaining.
“Let’s put it this way,” Zack Maloney, a fellow senior on the Erie boys basketball team said: “He’s a superstar. He’s our superstar and he’s going to be a superstar. It’s great watching the phenom put up the points.”
Johnston, a 6-foot, 4-inch senior, scored 40 points Friday night to lead the host Cardinals to a 73-65 victory against top-seeded Paw Paw in the championship game of the Illinois Class 1A Erie Regional. It was Johnston’s second consecutive 40-plus game, following a 49-point outburst in a double-overtime win against Shabbona Indian Creek on Wednesday and a 37-point performance against Fulton last Friday on Senior Night.
“I’ve never seen anything like Jacob,” Erie coach Ryan Winckler said.
“I did what I had to do,” Johnston said. “I was nervous the whole game, honestly. But not too nervous to affect me. I never thought we would lose.”
He made sure they didn’t.
Johnston scored 25 of Erie’s 38 points in the second half, including a 3-pointer from the left side with 2 minutes left in the third quarter that put the Cardinals on top to stay at 49-46. It was the 14th lead change in the game that also featured eight ties. The basket also came in a stretch in which Johnston scored 16 of Erie’s 18 points, giving the Cardinals a 62-58 edge when he scored on a pull-up jumper in the lane with 4:34 left in the fourth quarter.
“If I knew I could score, I was going to take it,” said Johnston, who made 13 of 15 shots from the field and 12 of 13 free throws.
Despite running his point total to 126 points in three games, Johnston remained modest.
“I couldn’t score that much without my teammates,” he said. “They set me up; they draw the defense off me.”
There certainly were big contributions from the others, too. Fellow senior Rhett Stover didn’t miss a shot and scored 12 points, 10 in the first half. Junior Owen McConnell finished with nine points and 13 rebounds. Connor Saad, another senior, had five points and seven rebounds. And Zach Maloney contributed solid minutes as he continued his comeback from a football injury that cost him most of the season.
Perhaps nothing was more important, though, than the way they all played after Johnston had to leave when blood was spotted on his hand with 4:22 remaining in the fourth quarter after two free throws by Zach Lilja had pulled Paw Paw within 62-60.
“I was scared to death,” Winckler said.
While he was gone his teammates kept the Cardinals on top. Jordan Chandler scored on a baseline drive to make it 64-60, then when Johnston came back, Erie widened its lead to 67-60 before the Bulldogs scored again.
By then there just wasn’t enough time left for a comeback.
“Tonight was special,” McConnell said. “It was crazy. The fans were going back and forth. Coach told us how loud it would be. It was the best feeling. I got chills when we walked out.”
The Cardinals certainly were charged up at the start.
Johnston started the game with a dunk off a baseline drive, and then Stover’s baseline jumper snapped a 6-6 tie and started an 11-point scoring run.
It wasn’t going to be that easy, though.
“The first quarter we allowed eight points, then we started throwing the ball all over the place,” Winckler said.
Utilizing the driving talents of Justin Wiley (25 points) and Nicholas Siemers (20 points) — and a defense that created five steals in the second quarter — the Bulldogs battled back and took their first lead with 2:33 left in the half on a steal and layup by Wiley. They went into the locker room ahead 36-35 when Wiley scored in the lane with 3 seconds left in the half.
“We talked about how in the first quarter we only gave up eight points, and if we do that we were going to win,” Johnston said of the halftime talk. “We said we’ve just got to slow the game down, attack the hoop and play defense.”
And most important, let Johnston take over the game.
ERIE 73, PAW PAW 65
ERIE (18-12) — Koby Kuhnen 0 0-0 0, Jacob Johnston 13-15 12-13 40, Connor Saad 2-10 0-0 5, Zack Maloney 1-2 0-0 2, Jordan Chandler 1-2 1-4 3, Rhett Stover 4-4 2-2 12, Kenneth Cole 1-2 0-0 2, Brandon Heppner 0 0-0 0, Owen McConnell 4-7 1-3 9. Totals 26-42 16-22 73.
PAW PAW (22-6) — Jonathan Jenkins 4-11 0-0 12, Nicholas Siemers 7-15 5-5 20, Jon Essex 0 0-0 0, Wesley Kaiser 0 0-2 0, Justin Wiley 10-18 5-10 25, Zach Lilja 2-7 4-4 8, Justen Penman 0-2 0-0 6, Jason Kidd 0 0-0 0. Totals 23-53 14-21 65.
Erie 17 18 19 19 — 73
Paw Paw 8 28 12 17 — 65
3-point goals — Erie 5-8 (Johnston 2-2, Stover 2-2, Saad 1-4); Paw Paw 5-17 (Jenkins 4-9, Siemers 1-5, Wiley 0-3). Total fouls — Erie 20, Paw Paw 21. Fouled out — Maloney, Lilja. Technical foul — Lilja. Rebounds — Erie 33 (McConnell 13, Saad 7, Johnston 6); Paw Paw 26 (Lilja 11).