ERIE – Fake left, bolt right down the baseline, go up strong, throw down an emphatic two-hand dunk. A great start by a great player leading his team to great heights.
The player: Erie's Jacob Johnston. Those were the first points of the game, and the first of 40 for Johnston, who led the Cardinals to a 73-65 win over the Paw Paw Bulldogs in the Class 1A Erie Regional championship Friday night at Erie High School.
Johnston went 13-for-15 from the floor and 12-for-13 from the line, lifting the Cardinals (18-12) to their first regional title since 2005. Johnston's last three games, he's scored 37, 49 and 40 points.
"He's the best player I've ever coached, and he's one of the best players I've ever seen in the area," said Erie coach Ryan Winckler, who is in his 10th season with the Cardinals.
"I was nervous the whole game, but not so nervous that it affected me," Johnston said. "I never thought we were going to lose."
Erie will face Eastland in an Eastland Sectional semifinal at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in Lanark. The Cardinals came from behind late to beat Eastland 68-63 in the championship game of the West Carroll tournament on Dec. 15. Johnston scored 35 in that one.
The Cardinals led Paw Paw nearly the entire way, but the Bulldogs (21-6) stayed within striking distance throughout. Paw Paw sliced a 10-point deficit down to two twice with less than 7 minutes, the last instance at 62-60 with 4:22 to play when Johnston had to leave the game because of blood on him.
Johnston was not out long, and freshman Jordan Chandler's driving bucket and two free throws from Connor Saad gave Erie a 66-60 lead with 3 minutes left.
Paw Paw could only get as close as five the rest of the way.
As huge as Johnston's night was on the offensive end, his defense was vital as well. He guarded the Bulldogs' Justin Wiley most of the way. Wiley had 25 points, but only seven in the second half.
Lilja was limited to eight points.
Stover also contributed 12 points, going 4-for-4 from the floor.
"This is the best feeling I've ever had, by far," Stover said. "He's [Johnston] absolutely ridiculous. He's grown up so much. It's incredible. I expect him to put up 20, 30 points. If not, I'm a little disappointed."
Star of the game: Jacob Johnston, Erie, 40 points, 13-15 FGs, 12-13 FTs
Key performers: Justin Wiley, Paw Paw, 25 points; Nicholas Siemers, Paw Paw, 20 points; Owen McConnell, Erie, 9 points, 12 rebounds
Up next: Class 1A Eastland Sectional semifinal, Erie vs. Eastland, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday