Winthrop's small star Keon Johnson comes up big for Eagles

Keon Johnson’s usual Superman act reached another level Nov. 21 at Illinois. The Winthrop guard scored 11 of his career-high 38 points in the final three minutes of regulation and overtime, practically willing his side to erase a late 10-point deficit and eventually upset the Illini, 84-80.

No matter that the 5-7, 160-pound Johnson started the game on the bench coming off an ankle injury. Or that he spent timeouts down the stretch getting his legs kneaded by a trainer to combat painful cramps. With the game on the line, coach Pat Kelsey simply put the ball in his star’s hands and let him figure out the rest.

Afterward, the Eagles celebrated the unlikely comeback victory with an impromptu locker room dance party and a Gatorade shower for Kelsey. By then, the exhausted Johnson was more than happy to take on a supporting role in the blissful shenanigans. Classic Keon.

“I say all the time: He wins the lottery and wins the $100 million PowerBall or his dog gets run over by a car, he’s got the same expression,” Kelsey said. “He doesn’t get high with the highs or low with the lows. … It’s just how he is.”

Johnson has experienced his share of both in four seasons at Winthrop.

Despite his size, the Ohio native has already etched his place in program history. He’s found ways to keep piling up buckets, depending on an array of slick moves around the rim and seemingly limitless outside range.

With 1,659 career points, Johnson ranks third on the all-time scoring list and should chase down leader Charles Brunson (1,850 points) in the coming weeks. This has been his best season yet: He’s among the nation’s top 20 scorers at 21.3 points per game, entering a Big South matchup with Campbell Saturday on ASN.

Yet Johnson still has one major item left on his to-do list: Get Winthrop back to the NCAA Tournament. Three straight losses in the conference tournament final – including a particularly hard-to-swallow setback against UNC Asheville last season – have only strengthened his drive to finish in style.

“From a competitive mindset, it’s all about preparation and leadership,” Johnson said. “I think (losing) last year was really a definite turning point in my career as far as knowing what I need to do and what needs to be done to get over that hump this year.”

Johnson – whose height on the official roster might be a bit generous – has been bucking expectations since he arrived on campus. He’d played high-level AAU ball growing up but struggled to get the same recruiting attention as his teammates. His only other Division I scholarship offer came from Albany.

“I had doubts like everybody else,” Kelsey said. “I mean he’s still 5-5.”

Johnson started out No. 3 on Kelsey’s point guard depth chart as a freshman. Then one guy pulled his hamstring and another missed the bus to a preseason scrimmage. Johnson went the distance that day, posting 26 points and seven assists. He’s been starting ever since.

By now, Johnson has developed into a cornerstone for Winthrop, an embodiment of everything Kelsey wants his program to be. The guard’s quiet determination to keep getting better and crowd-pleasing skillset have proven quite the combination. And his knack for summoning his best in the big moment has gone a long way toward getting the Eagles to the brink of an NCAA bid three years in a row.

“You can just sleep better at night as a coach when you have a really special guard like him,” Kelsey said.

It's all leading toward March and Johnson’s last shot to finish his checklist. Once an NCAA regular under Gregg Marshall, Winthrop hasn’t been in the field since 2010.

Last year, the Eagles led by nine points at halftime in the championship before UNC Asheville surged back to claim the title with a 77-68 win. Johnson – fighting through a wrist injury – finished with just two points on 1-of-16 shooting.

Even at his lowest, Johnson kept his cool. Kelsey never worried about his stoic star. True to form, he watched the tape once and dove right into his trusted offseason routine a couple days later.

“I knew I just wanted to put it in the past behind us,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t wait to get back on the floor.”

That history helps explain why Johnson has been able to keep the same edge, even once the doubters dwindled and the expectations spiked. He’s delivered well enough that he could be Winthrop’s first Big South Player of the Year since Greg Lewis in 2002. His fantastic performance against Illinois introduced his game to an even wider audience.

“It changed my career, my life, everything really, once I got here,” Johnson said. “I never expected it to go how it is going now. You never know what you’re getting yourself into. I’m so lucky to be at a great school where I can just be me and be the kind of player I know I can be.”

All that’s missing is a turn on college basketball’s biggest stage.

Eric Detweiler is a freelance writer based in Maryland. Follow him on Twitter at @EDetweiler.

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