CHARLOTTE – All of the cliches that exist in the universe could apply to this one – leaving it all on the floor, going out with a bang, one last hurrah. But whatever slogan you choose, Charlotte Latin sensational senior point guard Randy “RJ” Johnson was even better than that in his final high school basketball game.
Like everyone in attendance, Cannon coach Che’ Roth was in awe after his team’s 71-69 NCHSAA 4A title win had just crushed the fairytale ending for the six seniors who have helped build Latin’s program into a two-time Final Four team with a chance to win it all on their home floor for the first time in 17 years.
“Randy was so good, he must have had 40 tonight,” Roth marveled. “He just willed his team. He was unbelievable.”
Johnson absolutely dominated the second half. He scored 28 of his game-high 36 points after intermission, including 17 of Latin’s 22 points in the fourth quarter. The Holy Cross commit was hurting Cannon with 3-pointers – he made four in the second half after not connecting on one in the first two quarters – and at the rim where he made 12-of-13 free throw attempts and also converted on an old-school 3-point play.
As time expired, Johnson had a good look at a well-defended 3-pointer, but missed to the right. Latin had a chance to tie the game with a last-ditch fadeaway from Bennett Smith, but the ball missed and the Cougars hung on as Johnson crumpled to his knees on the court.
But Johnson had certainly stolen the show.
“He got a good look at it there at the end,” Latin coach Chris Berger said. “He’s dynamite. It’s been really fun to watch him for four years develop into the person and the player that he is. He’s big-time, and I think Holy Cross got a steal.
“We said before the game that we didn’t want to have any ‘what ifs.’ We wanted to leave it all out there, but more importantly we wanted to have fun. They’re never going to forget this. Win or lose, they’re never going to forget the experiences.”
The game started with Cannon jumping to a 6-0 advantage that they would never fully give away at any point, although the Hawks would tie the game on three occasions, including when junior Chase Montgomery’s 3-pointer tied the score at 12.
After Cannon jumped out to a seven point lead, junior Graham Calton (16 points) hit a 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer to put Latin within reach at 31-27.
Cannon came out hot again with a 7-1 spurt to get to their biggest lead, 40-28, before two 3-pointers from Johnson ignited a 10-0 Latin run to cut that lead to two points.
The Cannon lead got to seven points once, but 11 consecutive points from Johnson to open the fourth quarter tied the game at 55.
Cannon sophomore Jaden Bradley, who scored 27 points and is the state’s No.1 recruit in the Class of 2022 according to 247Sports. com, canned consecutive 3-pointers to give the Cougars a 61-56 lead.
But Latin wouldn’t stop attacking and eventually cut the lead to one point late after a Calton and-one and again a bucket by Johnson got the score to 68-67.
Cannon made two free throws to go up by three, but fouled Johnson outside the key and he made both free throws to cut it to 70-69.
The Hawks were having to foul and hacked Jarvis Moss (18 points), who made one of two to give Latin life at the end, but Johnson’s magic couldn’t continue at the buzzer.
“Sometimes, if you don’t get the taller trophy, it’s still OK,” Berger said. “I had a good feeling this was going to be a battle. I knew our guys were excited. It must have been one heck of a game to watch from the stands. It was a fun game to coach, and I’m just extremely proud of our guys.”
The Hawks finish the season 22-8, their best record since 2007-08, the year before Berger was named head coach.
Johnson was a two-time all-state player. They had playoff wins over Christ School and top-seeded 28-5 Durham Academy. They enjoyed win streaks of six, five and four (twice) games and the six seniors Berger are so proud of will leave this program in a much better place than they found it.
“This team was senior-led, and it’s kind of nice to have experience all year,” Berger said. “All six of those guys are going to go off and be successful people whether they’re professional athletes, doctors or CEOs of companies. That’s what it’s all about. I’m extremely proud.”
Sports editor note: Charlotte Latin coach Chris Berger is widely regarded as one of the good guys of the game. The coolest thing I saw all championship weekend was Berger, immediately after accepting his runner-up coaching medal. He had to have been emotional, coming within inches of winning his alma mater, Charlotte Latin, its first state title in nearly two decades. Some of his players were hugging and crying, but Berger took the time to shake hands and offer words of encouragement to every single Cannon player, assistant coach and to head coach Che’ Roth. That’s grace and humility in the face of defeat if I’ve ever seen it.