Thursday May 26th, 2016 5:19AM

Steele, Knights finally land big, white whale (VIDEO)

By Jeff Hart Sports Reporter
OAKWOOD -- For 16 years it has been sitting out on the horizon, just ever-so-slightly out of reach, yet so tantalizingly close. And no matter how close it did got, it always managed somehow to wiggle off the hook.

For Johnson coach Jeff Steele and the Knights, the Lanierland basketball tournament has been their big, white whale. Three times Steele has guided the Knights to the championship game, most recently in 2012, only to see someone else reel in the big prize.

So forgive Steele when the final seconds ticked down Saturday night on the Knights' 76-71 win over East Hall in the Lanierland finals, if he didn't have a few moments of good, old-fashioned stinginess running through his mind.

They had bagged the big one.

(To watch highlights of Saturday's championship victory for the Knights and a postgame interview with coach Jeff Steele and tournament MVP Ty Cockfield, press "play" in the box to the right.)

"Honestly, I was thinking, 'Finally, it's about time,'" he said afterwards as a crowd of Johnson supporters left the Lakeview Academy gym floor after 10 minutes of unbridled jubilation. "We've been close several times but could never finish it. Of course, all the teams we lost too were outstanding. This is a tough tournament to win for a reason."

Normally three times is the charm, they say, but North Hall last year denied Steele and the Knights yet again in their third trip to the finals. Steele said his squad remembered that one as they prepared for Saturday's tilt against East Hall.

"We talked about how if they could win it they would remember it for the rest of their lives," he said. "Their kids may one day play in this tournament and they'll be able to say, 'I was on the 2013 championship team.' Not many people get to say they were."

No one from Johnson had been able to make that claim since 1988 until Saturday. The magnitude of the accomplishment was not lost on Steele.

"It was kind of surreal after I got over that first thought," he said. "This is one of the goals we set every year so to actually see it happen is hard to describe. But it feels as good as I thought it would."

This year's collection of Knights may be poised for a breakout season. Most of the Lanierland champions have gone on to big seasons. North Hall, last year's champion, rode its Lanierland title to the Class AAA Final Four.

The Knights have a solid backcourt tandem in Ty Cockfield and Drew Dunham to go with long-range bomber Carter Cagle, and James Hodges and Justin Jones inside.

Cockfield showed his excitement with a somersault back-flip after their victory over East Hall.

"I was just excited. We wanted to win this for us, coach Steele, and all the Johnson fans," Cockfield said. "We've worked so hard for this. Two weeks ago we made this a goal.

Johnson prepared for the moment by playing a very tough non-region schedule with the likes of Whitefield Academy, South Cobb, North Cobb, and Athens Christian. They will take on Class AAAAAA teams Grayson and Centennial in the Duluth Jingle Jam later this week.

"This is a team sport," Steele said. "I've had better individual players than some of these guys but this is probably the best 'team' I've had here. They play together, they play hard, and they have a great chemistry together.

"We still have some things to work out but when we get those corrected I think this group has a chance to do some special things. We wanted to play a little tougher schedule this year because we knew they could handle it. We're excited about the rest of the season."

Judging by the Johnson crowd Saturday night, so are they.
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