LANARK – Jacob Johnston has been on a postseason tear the likes of which have rarely been seen in this area.
On Wednesday, the Erie star ran into a defensive wall that was equally impressive.
The 6-foot-4 Johnston, who carried the Cardinals to their first regional championship in 8 years last week, was shut down by a stifling Eastland defense. The Cougars rolled to a 62-41 victory on Wednesday night in a Class 1A Eastland Sectional semifinal.
Next up for Eastland (28-3) is the sectional title game Friday against either Aquin or River Ridge. Those squads meet tonight.
Johnston poured in 89 total points in regional wins against Indian Creek and Paw Paw last week. He managed just nine against Eastland, on 4-for-14 shooting, a far cry from the 35 he scored in the Cardinals' 68-63 victory in the teams' first matchup Dec. 15.
"I've been getting a lot of points from the free-throw line from taking it to the hoop, and I didn't get any free throws tonight," Johnston said. "I couldn't get things to go my way. The balls weren't dropping, and I didn't play very good defense. It just wasn't a very good game for me. I give credit to Eastland. They're a really good basketball team."
The Cougars' defensive strategy centered around slowing Johnston. Their best defender, 6-3 junior Skylar Paulson, checked Johnston most of the time, but had plenty of help.
"We were always going to have pinch help on the sides so he couldn't drive," Paulson said, "and I wanted to stay tight on him so he couldn't get the 3 off. When he got into the paint, I was physical with him, and I think he got flustered. It worked out."
Whenever the Cardinals set screens to try and shake Johnston loose, another Cougar was waiting for him on the switch. The result was some forced shots by Johnston in the lane that had little chance to go in. He also picked up two fouls on charges drawn by Marshall Fink and Paulson.
"We want to play good man-to-man defense," Eastland coach Tony Dunlap said, "but we put some wrinkles in every once in a while. [Assistant] coach [Larry] Tigges and the other coaches, they put in a few wrinkles tonight, and the kids responded as a team defensively. They got after it, and really frustrated [Johnston], I thought."
Offensively, Eastland (28-3) was clicking as well, with junior guard Dalton Shaner and senior forward Ty Hartman leading the way.
The cat-quick Shaner tossed in 28 points on 13-for-19 shooting, one point shy of his season-high set Dec. 28 against Lena-Winslow. He hit his first six shots, capped by a 3-pointer to end the first quarter and give the Cougars a 20-8 lead.
"I had a few easy shots right off the bat, and I was kind of feeling it," Shaner said. "When you get those easy shots, you have that much more confidence in yourself. After I hit a few layups, I got the jump shot down. Yeah, I was definitely feeling it after the first quarter."
Hartman was a force inside, finishing several twisting and turning layups on his way to 18 points on 9-for-11 shooting. The Cougars were an efficient 28-for-49 (57 percent) from the field.
"Offensively, when I didn't screw them up, I think they did a really good job," Dunlap said. "They made that extra pass. They showed they have some quickness and can play hard, and that was fun to see."
Erie (19-14) showed some early fight, clawing to within 26-17 after an aggressive take from freshman guard Jordan Chandler with 3 minutes, 28 seconds left in the second quarter. Eastland's lead was back to 11 (31-20) by halftime, however.
Chandler (12 points) and Rhett Stover (9) were solid on offense, but off-nights from Johnston and long-range threat Connor Saad (0-for-4, all from 3-point range in the first quarter) were too much to overcome.
"Plain and simple, we knew we had to make shots," Erie coach Ryan Winckler said. "I thought we got some really nice looks early in the game that we didn't knock down, and Eastland took advantage of that. We never made them extend their defense, and they were able to throw two or three guys at Jacob. They were just a better team than us tonight."
Star of the game: Dalton Shaner, Eastland, 28 points, 4 rebounds
Key performers: Ty Hartman, Eastland, 18 points, 4 rebounds; Jordan Chandler, Erie, 12 points
Up next: 1A Eastland Sectional championship – Eastland vs. Aquin-River Ridge winner, 7:30 Friday