GRANGER TWP. — Sometimes the fear of having things end pushes a player to do great things.
That’s what happened Wednesday to LaFette Johnson when the senior carried the Firestone boys basketball team in the fourth quarter and lifted the ninth-seeded Falcons over eighth-seeded Highland in a 56-55 Barberton Division I sectional semifinal thriller.
The Falcons (9-13) move on to play 2018 Division II champion and top-seeded St. Vincent-St. Mary (18-3) on Saturday, but it wouldn’t have been possible without their big man, who scored 26 points and grabbed 12 rebounds.
“I didn’t want my senior season to end early,” Johnson said. “I love being the man. They depend on me and I take the pressure.”
Johnson became the rallying force against a Hornets team that came into the fourth quarter with a 47-38 lead on its home court.
That’s when Johnson took over, scoring 13 points in the final quarter and swatting away any chance Highland (10-13) had of sneaking out with a win.
“He’s one of the better athletes around,” Firestone coach Dave Milo said. “He’s first-team All-City. I’m trying to get him the ball more if that’s possible. We set up plays just for him, but he’s just an unbelievable athlete and a nice kid. We want him to get the ball more often than not.”
Johnson shot 5-for-8 in the fourth quarter, but it might have been what he did without the ball that stood out in the end.
Ahead by one with 7.6 seconds left, he was fouled by Ryan Chema and could have pushed Firestone to a three-point advantage, but missed the front end of a one-and-one.
Bryce Profitt grabbed the rebound, and Highland called timeout.
After another timeout, the Hornets had the ball with with 3.4 seconds left at the timeline on the left.
Cole Tessena threw the ball in, but Johnson got his hand on it and the ball squirted out of bounds just as time elapsed.
“We just turned it up at the right time,” Milo said. “We got lucky today, but we can play defense. I think our defense won that ballgame in the second half. We told them at halftime just keep staying in their face because we have talent. Today, we put it together.”
That talent was enough to keep the likes of Alex Jaworski (16 points) and Profitt (14 points, 12 rebounds) in check enough to come back.
“We were a little loose with the ball,” Jaworski said. “Some calls didn’t go our way and we needed to execute more.”
The comeback was eerily similar to the last time the two teams played on Dec. 4 only this time, the Falcons were able to walk out of the gym with a win.
In the regular-season meeting, Highland held a 63-52 lead heading into the final quarter only to watch Firestone rally back to tie it at 77-77 and send the game into overtime.
The Hornets escaped that one with an 87-83 victory, but the experience of being in that game helped the Falcons this time.
“I think they’re familiar with the team and that helped a lot,” Milo said. “We played them before. If we hadn’t played them before, this would have been a little different. I think they had the confidence. We just turned it on in the fourth quarter.”
As a result, the Fighting Irish will wait for Firestone to arrive Saturday for a 7 p.m. tip.
“We’re going to have a lot of fun there,” Milo said. “These guys know those guys. We’re going to see what we can do. You want to play the best. We’re going to see what we can do.”