Photo: Jenn March, Jenn March Photography
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Lateef Johnson has ranged from scoring two points in a game this season to pumping in 32 points. That spread may suggest the Troy High senior center is wildly inconsistent, but really he is just doing what is necessary each game for his team to succeed. The way Johnson most likes to be measured isn’t through numbers, but a letter grade.
Johnson has played a vital part of 21 ‘Ws’ for the Flying Horses. Troy, a squad that finished 15-1 in the Suburban Council boys’ basketball standings, has won 21 games and lost four. The latest triumph Saturday came when Johnson delivered a season-best 32 points on 11-for-14 shooting to go along with nine rebounds and five assists to lead the Flying Horses past Jamesville-DeWitt 78-56 in the Class A regional final at SRC Arena on the campus of Onondaga Community College.
“My scoring this season has been going up and down. That is fine because what matters most is coming out with the win,” said Johnson, who averaged 12.3 points per game this season. “I have been making adjustments. Having a game like last game felt really good. When I get opportunities like that, you have to take advantage. Those are things I have been working on.
“These games are win or go home. You want to have your ‘A’ game, so I am definitely glad that a game like that came through.”
“That has been the whole team’s mindset: get the win,” Troy coach Greg Davis said. “They don’t care who gets the shine or who gets what. He has been like that all year. There have been games where he has scored 20 and others where he was scored four, but he does all the little things. He rebounds, he stays on his feet, blocks shots and sets screens.”
Johnson, named a Suburban Council second-team selection by the league coaches, has managed to excel in a multitude of ways in helping Troy win the Gray Division title, the Section II championship and move within two wins of the program’s first state title. Troy (21-4) next takes on Section V champion Mendon (25-0) at 1:15 p.m. Friday at Binghamton’s Floyd L. Maines Arena in the state semifinals.
Saturday, Johnson hurt the Red Rams in transition with both his scoring and passing skills. In the paint, the 6-foot-4 senior effectively sliced and diced through and around 6-7 junior star Payton Shumpert using each hand to finish.
“He is very talented. He does a lot,” Davis said. “He shoots it well when he gets it going. His footwork and the way he finishes is special. His ability to use both hands throws people. He shoots it right-handed, but he is very adept at going left in the paint. It was his most complete game. He really outworked him. Lateef played all 94 feet. Shumpert got tired and Lateef didn’t.”
“Honestly, it is an advantage because people want to guard my left, but I am really a righty,” Johnson said. “When I made my first couple of baskets, I started feeling my groove. I don’t want to say it didn’t matter who was in front of me, but I felt like I needed to go to work and score. My teammates felt the same towards me, so they kept getting me the ball.”
“He just keeps working. He never worries about scoring,” Troy senior point guard Nazaire Merritt said of Johnson. “If it is coming, it keeps coming. He dominated.”
Last week following a practice, Davis talked to his team about taking advantage of the opportunity it has — pointing up to the rafters at the four state football titles and talking about carving out their own legacy. Johnson listened attentively.
“Winning is something I have always cared about. I just want to make an impact and help us win,” Johnson said. “From where I come from, this feels great. I used to go to a different school and didn’t make the cut for that team. To be on this team, make a state title run and beat the team I got cut from has been an amazing run.”
“Lateef is a major part of what we are trying to do,” Davis said. “He has been one of the hardest workers. Coming in from being cut from a Shen team has been a little chip on his shoulder.”
Johnson, whether he produces a triple-double and makes only one basket, just wants to be part of two more wins.
“That would be amazing. History in the making,” Johnson said. “That is definitely something we want to be remembered for. Coach always says people won’t remember the times when someone played 25 minutes or how many assists you had in a certain game. What will stay and last forever is putting a banner up there. We want to be the team that makes history.”
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