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Lafayette's Tony Johnson not passing on many shots now

Senior point guard found confidence in his offensive game this season.

Tom Housenick

6:53 PM PST, March 5, 2013

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Tony Johnson takes an outlet pass and pushes the ball up the court, weaving his way around defenders.

He sees teammates Seth Hinrichs and Joey Ptasinski sprinting into position on each side of him.

Instinctively, he gets the ball to the shooter with the hotter hand at that particular moment.

"They are the two best shooters I've ever been around," Johnson says.

When Johnson sees 6-foot-9 post player Dan Trist hustling in transition, there is little doubt that the Lafayette point guard is going to reward his mate with the ability to finish the break.

Johnson is a pass-first point guard, among the best the Patriot League has ever seen.

He has passed the ball, however, to a fault.

With the likes of Hinrichs, Ptasinski and the graduated Jim Mower able to put up points in a hurry and post players Trist and grads Jared Mintz and Ryan Willen able to finish in the half court or the open floor, Johnson always felt the best option was to dish it off.

"One of my biggest obstacles coming in to this year was that there were so many better shooters around me," Johnson said. "It was probably a better chance [for us to score] having them take a bad shot than [me] taking a good shot."

That imbalance of pass vs. shoot has shifted some the last month of Johnson's senior season.

Perhaps it was the constant nudges of encouragement from coach Fran O'Hanlon, or the not-so-subtle barking of 2012 graduate Rob Delaney.

Whatever it was that turned Johnson on to shooting the ball more, it has worked. Finally.

The 6-footer from suburban Sacramento, Calif., now is as dangerous shooting as he is passing.

"All the things he does," O'Hanlon said, "there's been nobody better [at point guard at Lafayette] than him."

In addition to being so good at valuing the ball — he leads the Patriot League in steals and assist-to-turnover ratio — Johnson has found out that he is a pretty darn good shooter.

He is first in the league this season in field-goal percentage at 55.7 percent.

"Have you ever seen a guard … lead the league in field-goal percentage?" O'Hanlon wondered. "I don't know if we have, or will ever see it again."

Lafayette fans almost didn't get the chance to see Johnson play at the Kirby Sports Center. He was third on the Leopards' recruiting board at point guard when he was at Folsom (Calif.) High School.

Luckily for O'Hanlon, the two he had ranked ahead of Johnson chose to go college elsewhere.

"He kind of fell into our lap," the 18th-year coach said.

It took a couple of other circumstances for that to happen.

Johnson's mother, Karen Witt, insisted on her youngest of three children taking a visit to Lafayette before settling for an offer 40 minutes from home — Cal-Davis.

He made the cross-country trip and almost immediately changed his mind.

Nearby Sacramento State, which his stepfather, Michael Witt attended, wasn't pursuing Johnson hard. That left the door wide open for Lafayette.

Johnson walked through.

"I didn't want to go this far from home," he said. "But being so far away, I had to be so independent. It helped me grow up a lot sooner. I was almost on an island all by myself."

Well, not quite.

Karen Witt was "sulking a little bit" when he chose Lafayette. So the retiree decided to buy a house on College Hill. She has made four to five trips each season to the East Coast and stayed anywhere from a week to three weeks each time.

Johnson spent his first two seasons at Lafayette perfecting the lead part in O'Hanlon's motion offense. Anytime he shot, it came out of necessity — especially with Mintz, Mower and Willen on the floor as established scorers.

An accident happened during the 2010-11 regular-season finale. Johnson scored a career-high 29 points in double-overtime loss to American.

He averaged 17 ppg during his last two seasons in high school and hit the game-winning 3-pointer in the sectional championship game his junior season.

Johnson saw such offensive outbursts, though, as exceptions to the rule.

An injury-riddled junior season in which played just 12 games did nothing to encourage the four-year letterwinner to shoot more — even with teammates so encouraging.

Nothing changed early this season.

"He was still hesitant to shoot the ball," Hinrichs said. "But he got renewed confidence from all of us. I think that allowed him to be more confident in himself to make plays down the stretch."

Never was that more evident than in the Feb. 16 game against first-place Bucknell. Johnson's finish at the rim with 50 seconds left got the Leopards within one point. After a defensive stop, Johnson had the ball in his hands with 10 seconds on the clock.

"Coach [O'Hanlon] told me we had a timeout, to use it if I didn't see anything coming downcourt," Johnson recalled. "When I came down … I didn't even think about the timeout or if we had one. I just thought about getting to the rim. Somebody stepped in front of me, so I stepped back and shot it."

No way Johnson would have taken that shot as an underclassman.

"I probably would have been more tentative, dribbled across the court and called timeout," he said.

That game was at the onset of a transformation for Johnson, who has averaged 20.5 ppg in his last six contests.

Not so coincidently, Johnson's game-winner triggered a five-game winning streak. Lafayette enters the Patriot League tournament as the No. 2 seed — its highest since 2000.

"He's going to find the right guy to get the ball to," Hinrichs said. "We know he's going to make the right play."

Johnson now realizes that sometimes making the right play is taking the shot himself.

thousenick@mcall.com

Twitter: Follow @TomHousenick

 

ABOUT TONY JOHNSON

Age: 21

Hometown: Folsom, Calif.

Family: Karen Witt, mother; Anthony Johnson, father; Michael Witt, stepfather; sisters Krista, 30, and Amanda, 23.

College: Lafayette

Class: Senior

Major: Economics

Position: Point guard

Height: 6 feet

Weight: 175 pounds

Stats: Leads the Patriot League this season in steals, field-goal percentage and assist-to-turnover ration. … Fourth all time in school history with 158 steals, seventh in assists (360), despite missing 23 games in his career because of back, leg and foot injuries. … Has started in 67 of 103 games he's played. … Has 881 career points. … Scored a career-high 29 points twice, including last month vs. Lehigh. … In his first three seasons, he averaged a shot ever 5.52 minutes played. In 2012-13, he is averaging one every 3.65 minutes.

PATRIOT LEAGUE MEN'S BASKETBALL QUARTERFINALS

HOLY CROSS (12-17) AT LAFAYETTE (17-14)

When: 7 tonight

Where: Kirby Sports Center

At stake: A berth in Saturday's semifinals against the Colgate/Lehigh winner at the site of the higher seeded team.

Previous 2013 meetings: Lafayette won 63-53 at home and 79-76 in Worcester, Mass., thanks to a Tony Johnson 3-pointer in the final seconds. Seth Hinrichs and Bryce Scott had 16 points each and Johnson 15 in the first meeting.

About the Crusaders: Ended a four-game losing streak with 15-point home win over Colgate in regular-season finale. … Are 12-12 vs. Lafayette at the Kirby Sports Center. … Are 27-17 in tournament play, 7-14 when seeded lower than second. They are 1-1 as a No. 7 seed (2010). … Third-year head coach Milan Brown is 0-2 in PL tournament games. … Are 1st in PL in FT percentage (75.7), 2nd in blocked shots (3.6). … Junior forward Dave Dudzinski is 4th in PL in scoring (15.0 ppg.) and rebounding (6.6 rpg). … Sophomore point guard Justin Burrell is 1st in FT percentage (91.0). … Of their 17 losses, 10 are by 10 points or fewer.

About the Leopards: Are 4-2 in PL tournament play against Holy Cross, including wins the last three postseasons. … Are 15-20 in PL tournament games, 6-0 at home. … Take a five-game winning streak into the tournament. … Johnson has 360 career assists, 7th place in school history. He also has 158 steals, 4th on the Leopards' list. … Are 0-5 in games in which forward Dan Trist does not play. … Johnson has scored at least 17 points in each of the last six games. He had two such games in previous 25 contests. … Have used eight starting lineups this season. … Freshman Bryce Scott has scored at least eight points in 10 of his last 11 games. … Coach Fran O'Hanlon is coaching in his 30th PL tournament game, one behind former Bucknell coach Pat Flannery for most.

Other quarterfinals (at 7 p.m.): No. 8 Navy (8-22) at No. 1 Bucknell (25-5); No. 5 American (10-19) at No. 4 Army (15-14).

COLGATE (11-20) AT LEHIGH (20-8)

When: 7 tonight

Where: Stabler Arena

At stake: A berth in Saturday's semifinals against the Holy Cross/Lafayette winner at the site of the higher seeded team.

Previous 2013 meetings: In only PL quarterfinal in which the teams split the season series, each team won at home. Lehigh won 60-45, thanks to 14 points from Mackey McKnight and 12 rebounds from Holden Greiner. Colgate won 64-60 in Hamilton last month, courtesy of 19 points from Murphy Burnatowski and 17 from Pat Moore.

About the Raiders: Are 4-15 this season on the road. … Have lost three of last four games. … Transfer Murphy Burnatowski is third in the league in scoring at 17.2 ppg. … Haven't won a tournament game since 2008-09. … Are 16-20 in tournament play, 3-12 the last 12 seasons. … Have won two tournament titles (1995-96). … Tied for last in scoring defense (69.6 ppg) and last in scoring margin (minus-6.1 ppg). … Luke Roh is fifth in assists (3.3 apg) and sixth in rebounding (6.6 rpg).

About the Mountain Hawks: Are 16-19 in PL tournament play, 4-2 vs. Colgate, including a 70-57 win in last season's quarterfinals. … Have won two in a row after a three-game losing streak. … Senior center Gabe Knutson is a three-time PL all-academic team pick. He will play professionally in China next year. … Senior forward Holden Greiner is 26 points shy of 1,000 career points. … Knutson has 1,472 career points, 11th on Lehigh's all-time list, 27th in PL history. … Are 5-0 on Wednesdays. … Are 10-3 at home this season. … Junior guard Anthony D'Orazio averaged 14.5 ppg in two games this season vs. Colgate, including tying a career high of 17 in loss.