FGCU's Zach Johnson Has Always Shown Heart In The Clutch

FGCU's Zach Johnson scores Sunday (3/6/16) against Stetson during the Atlantic Sun Conference Championship game at Alico Arena in Fort Myers. FGCU beat Stetson 80-78 to advance to its second NCAA Division I basketball tournament in school history.(Photo: KINFAY MOROTI/THE NEWS-PRESS...)Buy Photo

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With the season hanging in the balance Sunday and momentum harder to corral than a wild horse, Lawton Williams turned to his wife and declared the outcome anyway.

“I said, ‘You know Florida Gulf Coast ain’t losing,’” the Miami-Norland High School coach said during FGCU’s 80-78 overtime victory over Stetson in the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament final.

“She said, ‘I know. My baby is going to make a play.’”

It’s just what Zach Johnson’s always done.

Although only a redshirt freshman, the 6-foot-2, 195-pound ball of muscle came through in the clutch the same way he always did in high school, travel ball or anywhere else there was a hoop, sending FGCU back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since its glorious Dunk City debut in 2013.

“He’s not afraid,” third-year FGCU coach Joe Dooley said of a trait that made Johnson the first recruit he visited and first he signed.

“The first day I saw him was the first day we were allowed to go recruiting. I said, ‘We’ve got to recruit this kid.’ I just liked his athletic ability. He’s got a big smile. That sounds funny, but it’s true. He’s got it.”

Selection Sunday

  • What: NCAA men’s basketball tournament bracket revealed

  • When: March 13, 5:30-7:30 p.m.

  • Where: Alico Arena

  • TV: CBS

  • Online: NCAA.com

  • Tournament schedule:

  • March 15-16: first four, Dayton, Ohio

  • March 17-18: first round

  • March 19-20: second round

  • March 24-25: Sweet 16

  • March 26-27: Elite Eight

  • April 2, 4: Final Four, NRG Stadium, Houston, Texas

THE NEWS-PRESS

FGCU downs Stetson 80-78 for second NCAA tournament berth

Well-known by now is how Johnson’s promising career almost ended before it started – with a cryptic announcement before his freshman season saying he would miss the year with an unspecified health issue that was prompting prayer but would not be discussed by any parties for privacy reasons.

When he finally was cleared to play last offseason, he returned to the court not angered at the year spent restricted only to very light activity but ultimately grateful for a season to study the game.

That remains true even as it’s no longer remained secret that the health issue may have been due to an erroneous test showing a heart problem.

“It was just precautionary,” Johnson said. “They didn’t want to just throw me out there and something did happen. They wanted to make sure they ran through tests. I’m fine. I’m perfectly healthy.

“I think everything happens for a reason,” Johnson said of his redshirt season, mostly spent vastly improving shooting form that was a lone glaring weakness in his game.

“Although I missed a year of basketball, I got to learn a lot more than I knew coming in. It was more of a mental year for me rather than physical.”

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 (Photo: Kinfay Moroti/news-press.com, Kinfay Moroti/news-press.com)

Within the framework of FGCU’s inside-out offense, Johnson has at times been both an eye-catching force and turnover-prone newcomer this season, much like the Eagles’ other underclassmen in an all-new backcourt transitioning from the era of program pillars Brett Comer and Bernard Thompson.

After Johnson’s repeated, decisive assaults on the rim down the stretch Sunday, Dooley acknowledged there is a greater need to at times loosen the playmaking reins on FGCU’s young backcourt, Johnson included.

“I thought he was a little jittery early,” Dooley said of Sunday’s start. “Once he gets a little confidence then you got to let him go.”

Williams agrees with keeping Johnson within the system, at least to a point.

“He is a freshman still,” Williams said.

THE NEWS-PRESS

FGCU: Freshman Johnson makes key plays late for Eagles

Still, as Sunday’s second half and overtime played out, Williams from some 150 miles away in Miami saw the same fierceness that Johnson showed endlessly for Norland.

That included earning back-to-back state final four MVP awards for the middle two of Norland’s four straight Class 6A titles, a streak that ended this season.

“That’s what he does. I was watching the game, and I was coaching,” Williams said. “I was just like, ‘Give him the ball. Go 1-4, set a ball screen and let him get jiggy.’ Sometimes you’ve just got to let the kids do what they do, if you have a kid that can do that.

“When the lights come on he’s going to do what he does.”

Johnson smiles deferentially when hearing such talk.

“We just take what the defense gives us,” he said, pointing to the 21 points and 12 rebounds from redshirt sophomore center Antravious Simmons in Sunday’s final and 16 points and nine rebounds from A-Sun tournament MVP Marc-Eddy Norelia.

“It’s a huge reason we won. I also got going. But without them opening the court up, them digging down on the post, none of it would have happened. We were just taking what the defense gave us.”

THE NEWS-PRESS

Is RPI on FGCU's side to make the NCAA tournament?

Simmons, a 6-foot-9, 250-pound former football offensive lineman at South Miami High who transferred from VCU to FGCU because of Johnson, said his former AAU teammate at Miami Breakdown has always played with a chip on his shoulder.

“He plays with so much heart,” Simmons said. “He’s just always in attack mode.”

Crediting such ferocity to his mother, Irose, Johnson smiles brightly again at such praise.

“I’m a really nice guy. But when you’re on the court things change,” said Johnson, schooled by his mother that anything worth doing deserved maximum effort.

“She saw I loved (basketball). She never wanted me to do just something and not get anything out of it. I’ve got to make sure I put my all into it. She has that same mentality in life.”

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 (Photo: Kinfay Moroti/news-press.com, Kinfay Moroti/news-press.com)

In high school, Johnson set out to prove he was the best player not just in South Florida, but the state.

“That was my biggest thing,” he said. “I wanted to make sure I could be compared to some of the best players in the nation and play on that level.”

Now, three seasons after FGCU first reached the NCAA tournament, the Eagles are going back in part because of a player that a test showed might have something wrong with his heart.

Those who know Johnson can only laugh at such a notion.

“A lot of people are down on Florida Gulf Coast because they think Dunk City was a fluke and a lot of the players are gone and we aren’t a force to be reckoned with,” Johnson said. “When we step on the court we’ve got to prove that we are.”

THE NEWS-PRESS

The original Dunk City: Where are they now?

Injury update

Fifth-year senior wing Julian DeBose is being held out of practice this week but suffered no structural damage to his ankle after turning it badly in the first half Sunday and missing the second half.

“We’ll hopefully get him back at practice this weekend,” Dooley said. “He’s doing better than he was.”

DeBose said he knew his ankle was injured seriously enough to make his return to the game in the second half more of a liability than a benefit for FGCU.

“I’ll be able to play,” DeBose said Wednesday. “I’m getting treatment, taking it light, making sure that I’m able to play.”

Freshman Rayjon Tucker, who took a hard fall on his hip several weeks ago, has been less effective in recent games because of the severity of the fall and what’s known as the freshman wall, Dooley said.

“The wall’s hit him, and the hip hasn’t helped,” Dooley said.

The longer, more-rigorous college season often leaves freshmen still accustomed to the high school weary by the end of their first college seasons.

Redshirt junior center Demetris Morant also continues to play through sharp pain in his right leg. Despite major practice limitations, the 6-9 shot blocker has shown striking progress offensively.

“The good news is he can’t do anything structurally (to hurt his leg worse),” Dooley said. “The bad news is it does hurt. He’s toughed it out. He doesn’t feel great. But he can play.”

Dooley praised Morant’s vastly improved game even without time to practice.

“It’s frustrated him he has not gotten to show the development he’s made,” Dooley said. “Once the season is over he’s shut down for six weeks so hopefully he can get completely healthy and build momentum going into the summer next year.”

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Source : http://www.news-press.com/story/sports/college/fgcu/2016/03/09/fgcus-zach-johnson-has-always-shown-heart-clutch/81522864/

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