Sometimes when he gets the chance, sophomore point guard Cornell Johnston likes to fire up a deeper than average three-point attempt, just to let the defense know he can make those shots.
It may seem like an unconventional move, especially at such a critical time, but Johnston and Ladue boys basketball coach Todd Basler both consider it effective.
“I like to do that at crunch time sometimes,” Johnston said. “I hit those all the time in practice. So I figure it’s a shot I make all the time, I might as well take it.”
And surprising as it might seem, Basler agrees.
“He’s a 40 percent three-point shooter,” the coach said. “But he’s got great touch. And periodically, I’m OK with him taking that. He’s going to make them more than he’s going to miss them.”
Well count Friday night, in a matchup against the No. 9-ranked small school team in St. Louis – – in the third-place game at CBC’s highly entertaining D.C. Wilcutt Invitational Tournament, as one of those huge times when Johnston made that deep three-pointer.
This time, it was an NBA-range three, with a minute and a half to go in overtime, that gave the Rams the lead for good, in what proved to be a 53-50 win over the Warriors.
“That’s definitely one of the biggest wins we’ve had in a while,” Basler said. “Whitfield is a great team, and a win like this for us, just breeds more and more confidence that when we play great defense like we did tonight, we can play with anybody.”
The Rams also showed they could beat anybody as well, especially with a dynamic young point guard like Johnston leading the way.
Friday, The 5-foot-6, 120-pounder, who played in nearly every varsity game as a freshman last year, was nearly unguardable as he led Ladue to a revenge win over Whitfield, by scoring a game-high 16 points and dishing out eight assists.
“When we played them ” Johnston said. “He won that battle and they won that game. And I just wanted to come up with a better gameplan for how to go against them. I thought I did much better tonight.”
Boy did he ever.
Johnston not only knocked down what proved to be the game-winning shot, with his 25-foot three, he also went six-for-six at the free throw line in overtime to help the Rams salt the win away.
Fellow sophomore and teammate Andrew Maddock also had a big night for Ladue, tossing in 15 points and grabbing a game-high 12 rebounds to help the Rams (10-4) pick up their 10th win of the season.
“Our biggest focus was on defense,” Basler said. “And tonight, I thought our kids competed so well tonight. To beat Whitfield, that’s a signature win. And in the overtime, I was playing three sophomores. So I felt good about that.”
Junior Justin Thomas had 15 points, and seniors Harris and Darius Rucker had 11 points apiece to lead Whitfield, which fell to 9-5 on the year, and took fourth-place in the D.C. Wilcutt event.
“We just weren’t ready to play tonight, and that’s the bottom line,” Whitfield coach Mike Potsou said. “We got outplayed. We got outworked. We stopped sharing the ball on offense. And we stopped valuing the ball, and being smart offensively. And you’ve got to give credit to Ladue for how they played us defensively.”
Ladue held Whitfield to just 18 points in the first half, and 27 points through three quarters, before the Warriors finally broke loose for 17 points in the fourth to send the game to overtime.
Rucker tied the game with a short bankshot, with 30 seconds left in regulation, then added a pair of buckets early in the extra session to give Whitfield its first lead since early in the first quarter.
But that only set the stage for Johnston’s three-point and free throw heroics in the final 95 seconds.
“It’s about heart,” Johnston said. “And when you have that, it doesn’t matter about size or experience. When you play with heart, everybody’s the same age. It just matters how much heart you have.”