Jasper Johnson is known by his coaches as a player who is always going to rise to the occasion, and the junior did so in a big way Friday night.
In his first game back after battling an illness and quad injury that left him sidelined for several weeks, Johnson caught an inbounds pass from Stephen Davis and laid it in as time expired to give Santa Barbara a 45-43 win over cross-town rival San Marcos at the Sports Pavilion at Santa Barbara City College.
After the ball went through the net and the buzzer sounded, the Dons’ student section stormed the floor to celebrate the victory. Johnson, who was overcome with emotion, told the News-Press he was just trying to get the ball and make a play.
As the team made its way to the locker room, Bryce Warrecker said he knew the Royals would be focused on him on the last possession.
“We knew they were going to try and double team me because that’s just their plan for this game, not letting me get the ball,” said Warrecker, who finished with 15 points, including eight in the fourth. “I told Jasper that I’m just going to leak out for him and try to draw some defenders towards me and he got an open look and knocked it down.”
Warrecker was forced to leave the game with just over two minutes left in the second quarter after suffering a bloody nose. The team wasn’t sure if he would be available in the second half, but the senior returned wearing a mask over his face and led the Dons down the stretch. While Warrecker was thrilled to get the win, he was just as happy for his teammate for staying positive over the past few weeks.
“He’s had a rough year so far being hurt and sick,” Warrecker said. “This is a huge game for him, knocking down some threes and getting some confidence. Hitting the game-winner against SM, that’s everyone’s dream right there.”
Johnson, who is a junior, was competing in his fourth “Big Game” against San Marcos. He said the previous experiences helped him get rid of any nerves and jitters and just play the game.
After San Marcos tied the game at 43 with 22 seconds left, Johnson missed a three pointer on the next possession, but the Dons were able to regain possession with 1.1 seconds remaining. Corey Adam called a timeout and talked things over with his team and his assistant, Greg Blessing, told Adam he had a play to draw up.
“I said let’s do it,” Adam said postgame. “He was the blessing tonight.
“We knew they would be focused on Bryce and the guys were even telling us ‘no we’ve got to go to Bryce,’ but their defense was going to put everything towards him. Jasper can get the highest out of anybody when he has a running start, so that’s what we did.”
Adam and Blessing played basketball growing up and were college roommates at Chico State.
“I’ve got good assistants and I trust them,” Adam said. “I’ve spent a lot of time talking basketball with Greg.”
Johnson was among those who thought that Warrecker should get the final shot, but the senior patted him on the back and said “no, this is going to do.”
“They probably didn’t expect it,” Johnson said. “I have full confidence in him and he has full confidence in me. That’s the way a team should be.”
Santa Barbara (11-6, 2-0 in Channel League) was trailing 14-9 at the end of the first quarter, as San Marcos’ John Connolly came out firing and scored his team’s first 10 points. The Royals (9-9, 1-1) opened up a 25-15 lead with just over two minutes left in the first half, but Santa Barbara was able to close the half on an 8-0 run and opened a 28-25 lead with 5:32 left in the third.
“You don’t want to go into the half down double digits,” Adam said. “We kind of put ourselves in a hole and we always talk about ‘what are you going to do when you get punched in the mouth,’” Adam said. “They definitely punched us in the mouth, and everybody has a plan until you get punched in the mouth. We stuck to our plan, which is defensive basketball.”
Connolly made a layup and hit a fade away jumper, followed by a layup by Isaiah Hicks to give San Marcos a 38-32 lead heading into the fourth.
Santa Barbara was able to clamp down on the defensive end in the final period, holding San Marcos to just five points.
Warrecker put the Dons ahead 43-41 and with 24 seconds left San Marcos called a timeout. On the inbounds play, it appeared the Royals had an open layup, though the team was forced to burn another timeout. They returned to the floor and called the same play, and this time Will Pace was able to convert the layup to tie the game.
“We saw what was available and we knew, based on the personnel we had in the game, there was two decisions we had to make and we were ready to make the decision either way and that’s what we did,” said San Marcos coach Jelani Hicks.
“These are two big games that you’ll remember and these are the ones that you want to win,” Hicks said. “These are big, not only for league and going into the playoffs, but city-wide bragging rights. All these kids grew up together and they know each other. That’s the fun part.”
Connolly, who finished with a game-high 17 points, fouled out with 1:49 left.
“Obviously if we lose a starter down the stretch, that’s someone we would want in the game,” Hicks said. “But we’ve always prided ourselves all year in having able bodies when we need them, so we’re confident with whoever we have to bring off the bench to make plays.”
It was all you could ask for in the “Big Game.” The crowd was standing room only and both student sections had their chance to poke fun at one another throughout. Both Adam and Hicks were pleased with the way their teams were able to handle the moment.
“We don’t count moral victories or anything like that, but this is a game that we can definitely build on,” Hicks said. “It was a good game for us because that was one of the most complete games, from start to finish, that we’ve played all year.”
As Santa Barbara entered the locker room, Jasper’s father, Miami Vice star Don Johnson, was grinning ear to ear.
“Jasper is a special player,” he said. “He’s a special guy and we’re lucky to be his parents.
“He quietly goes about his business and handles adversity,” he added. “You’ve got to hand it to him. He needed a big game and he had one.”