Head coach Ed Cooley had seen enough.
With eight minutes to play, just moments after Niagara guard Anthony Nelson connected on a three-point shot to stretch the lead to eight, Cooley tossed the clipboard and coach speak aside and turned to his trusted senior.
“There was a time and point that we were down with eight and I looked Anthony Johnson in the eyes and I said, “Man, It’s time for you to be dominant,” Cooley said. “’I’m not ready to send you back to Lake Wales yet.’ And I added a couple of other choice words.”
The game, from that point forward, was never the same, with Johnson as the principal reason that the Stags survived and advanced against Niagara and now await hometown favorite and defending champion Siena in tonight’s Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) Championship Game.
Blocked shots. Inside scoring. Even clutch free-throw shooting. Johnson did a little bit of everything to ensure that his storybook senior season will end on a Monday night in front of a near capacity crowd at the Times-Union Center, just minutes away from a prospective berth in the NCAA Tournament.
“I’ve been wanting to play in the championship game since my freshman year,” Johnson recalled. “Seeing (Niagara guard) Tyrone Lewis win MVP on our floor. I’ve been wanting to play in the championship.”
“I feel like, once we get there, we’ll perform,” he said.
“All we talked about in our preparation today was that we just wanted opportunity,” Cooley added. “We wanted opportunity, and that opportunity was to play on Monday. That’s all we talked about it. It wasn’t so much what we had to do against Niagara so much as what we had to do to advance.”
The most difficult step, however, lies in tonight’s postseason finale against the Saints, national mid-major darlings and two-time defending MAAC Champions. In contrast, the tonight is the first time in seven years that the Stags will play in the title game.
As if that isn’t daunting enough, consider that the Siena boasts a 37-game win streak at Albany’s Times-Union Center, the supposed “neutral” site of the game. The Stags haven’t won in Albany since 2007, Cooley’s first season as head coach.
Ironically, in that game four seasons ago, Cooley also turned to a senior, guard Michael van Schaick, and asked him for something more, for something greater, for an effort above and beyond the call of duty.
To win tonight, the Stags may need a similar showing and then some from Johnson and, for that matter, the entire roster, which seems far more feasible this season than 12 months ago, when a dilapidated, injury-laden Stags roster limped into the semifinals against the Saints.
The experience of that season, and last year’s 80-65 semifinal loss to the Saints, may just end up as the ultimate blessing in disguise.
“We had great preparation losing everything last year. So everything this year was like, “We’ve been there before, we’ve done that.” Now, we’ve kind of had two main cogs; two of them are at the podium (Anthony Johnson and Derek Needham). I’ll coach them over anybody in our league on any night.”
Tonight, the Stags have the opportunity to prove just that. That Needham and Johnson and Olander don’t just belong in the conversation of the select few of the conference’s best players.
The opportunity to prove that as fact rather than opinion is just hours away.