OAKWOOD -- It takes guts, dedication and, above all, desire to overturn eight years of frustration.
On Friday night, the Johnson boys basketball team combined each of those characteristics into a breathless eight-minute span that saw all those barren seasons evaporate into the thick air of the Knights' gym.
Johnson battled back from an early deficit to fend off Eastside 51-50 in the Region 8-AAAA championship game, claiming the program's first title since 2005 in a finish that sent students and fans sprawling onto the court in celebration and had coach Jeff Steele singing his team's praises.
"These kids deserve this; people don't know what we've been through, how hard we've prepared and what these kids are like," Steele said. "These guys just refused to lose, and I'm so proud of them."
The Knights (24-4) had every opportunity to let the region crown slip from their grasp, misfiring on offense through three quarters while watching Eastside come up with a number of key shots to maintain an early lead. But the Knights battled on defense and under the glass, forcing 11 second half turnovers and grabbing 10 more rebounds than the Eagles after halftime (18-8).
That work kept Johnson within striking distance until an 11-2 run at the start of the fourth quarter pushed the Knights into the lead. And while Eastside fought back to tie the game and even take a 50-49 lead, Johnson's energy -- and Drew Dunham's nerves -- carried the day.
Dunham drilled two free throws with 16 seconds remaining to put the Knights back ahead for good at 51-50, part of an 11-point performance for the point guard, who also came up with big baskets at the end of the first half. From there, the Johnson defense forced a contested 3-point attempt that banged off the iron and out of harm's way as the clock expired, touching off wild celebrations on the court and in the stands.
"Drew is big all the time," Steele said. "People in the stands don't see all things he does for us, especially on defense. He works to get us in the right positions all the time."
Defense proved huge for Johnson throughout, as the Knights forced 23 total turnovers and out-rebounded Eastside 32-19 -- including 14 boards for center Montrell McKenzie, who also scored 12 of his team-high 14 points in the fourth quarter.
"We crashed the boards; we made more stops; this was all about the defense we played to turn things around," said McKenzie, the team's lone senior, who walked around postgame at midcourt clutching a trophy in his hands. "This means everything to me. One day I'll be able to walk back in here and point to a banner and tell my kids, 'we put that up there.' "
After scoring just two points over the first three quarters, McKenzie fired Johnson's comeback, scoring back-to-back baskets at the start of the fourth quarter to pull within 35-32. Eastside's Treyvon Francis answered with a jumper of his own, but Dunham one-upped the Eagles with a three-point play, followed by another McKenzie basket to tie the score at 37-37. By the time Johnson's Ty Cockfield stole an Eastside pass and scored on a lay-up for a 39-37 lead with 5:10 left, Knights fans were whipped into a frenzy.
"I kept telling Montrell to show everyone why they voted you 8-AAAA player of the year," Steele said. "And he did."
The Eagles refused to fade, however, as Quindarius Russell drilled a 3-pointer to keep pace, while Chavis Williams answered a thunderous dunk from McKenzie to knot the score at 49-49 with 1:40 remaining.
The offensive outburst slowed, however, and both teams made trips to the free throw line, Francis hitting 1 of 2 shots for a 50-49 advantage until Dunham drilled his two shots for the decisive points. The Eagles also went 0-for-2 in their two previous trips to the line in the fourth quarter.
"They didn't make it easy for us tonight; they had a lot to do with how we started," Steele said of Eastside. "But when you win games like this this is how you have to do it, with defense and effort. I think we felt a little tight early, but we just kept working. And we seized the opportunity."
Eastside appeared the team ready to seize the moment early, taking a 12-7 lead on 3-pointers from Russell -- part of a game-high 19 points. Russell and Francis (13 points) also hit big shots in the second quarter before Dunham and James Hodges responded with baskets for a 6-0 run into the interval and a 23-18 deficit.
The Eagles stretched their advantage to 31-21 on Anthony Anderson's 3-pointer with 5:16 left in the third quarter, but Cockfield -- who finished with 11 points -- answered with a trey of his own to help stay within 35-28 at the start of the fourth quarter. From there it was mostly Johnson -- and McKenzie -- as the Knights put up 22 points over the final eight minutes to snatch the title away.
Rod English also scored 11 for Johnson on Friday.
"This is the culmination of a lot of hard work," said Steele, whose team is in the midst of its highest-ever win total.
The Knights will face Shaw, the No. 4 seed from Region 5-AAAA, in the first round of the state playoffs next week.
THIRD PLACE GAME:
STEPHENS COUNTY 67,
MADISON COUNTY 61
The Indians pulled out a close game inside the final minute to claim the No. 3 seed from Region 8-AAAA.
Cody Helgeland scored a game-high 21 points to pace Stephens County, while Tavoris Davis added 17 in the win. Kamichi Fleming also scored nine.
Malik Freeman scored 16 for Madison County, while Kirkland Moon chipped in with 10.
The Indians will match-up with the No. 2 seed from Region 5-AAAA on the road in the first round of the state playoffs next week. Madison County will face the 5-AAAA champion on the road.