"1,000 points tonight? Really?" Coach Rick Stansbury said. "Hopefully he can score a whole lot more this season."
Johnson admitted he'd no notion of reaching the plateau in just the first game of his senior season. "It kind of surprised me. I guess it was just the right time for it to happen!"
The second time was particularly right for Johnson, and most of his teammates as well. The Tigers, out of the Ohio Valley Conference, forced a halftime tie and took a brief lead in the last period. But after scoring just one field goal in the first half Johnson kicked it into gear and took charge of the evening. He also did it on a knee that had been hurt during Monday's practice and sidelined him three days. His coach even wondered initially Johnson would be available for the opener.
"We talked after one of the practices and I told him Coach, I can go," Johnson said. "I had a workout, then I practiced, and I knew I was ready."
"You can see why I was having a headache all week thinking about playing this team without Ravern," Stansbury said. "He jumped up and made some shots." Johnson finished shooting 7-of-17 overall, 5-of-9 at the arc; and tallied a career-most 13 points from the foul line. That was because the skinny senior didn't shy away from attacking the goal and taking contact in the process, knee or not.
"For the most part it felt pretty good. As the game progressed it got a little sore but not that much."
Senior forward Kodi Augustus joined Johnson as a double-digit Dog with 14 points, though 10 of his came in a first half. Augustus also dominated rebounding much of the evening with 14 boards, at each end taking advantage of miss-matched defenders. Many times Tennessee State attempted covering the 6-8 Augustus with 6-1 Will Peters, with inevitable results.
"14 rebounds, probably a career high for him I'd say," Stansbury said. "And he didn't shoot but three threes." The coach's only concern with Augustus was a string of offensive charges, but since he was one of the few Dogs trying to force the first-half pace this was acceptable effort.
A trio of Tigers scored 13 points each, but were a combined 14-of-39 shooting to get there. TSU was 36% overall, not that much worse than State's 38% accuracy. But the Bulldogs were able to get to the free throw line and finished with ten more made one-pointers; exactly the final margin of victory.
If Stansbury wanted a balanced offensive approach he got it early, with every starter attempting at least one shot before four minutes were out. And if the Dogs weren't sharp shooters early, good defense made up for it as the Tigers were only 2-of-11 shooting to begin. Still they kept throwing up enough attempts that it was only a 10-8 difference.
Even treys by Johnson and rookie Jalen Steele didn't produce enough margin, because the Dogs offset such gains by turning the ball over. So when Robert Covington dropped TSU's first trey through at 6:20 his team was ahead 18-17; his next longball made it 26-21 at four-minute mark. Fortunately Covington went cold with three-straight misses, allowing the Dogs to stay in striking distance. It was Shaun Smith doing the striking, his buzzer trey tying it up 31-31.
It fell to guard Riley Benock to put his team in front, sticking the three on the inbounds pass. As the Tigers got sloppy on offense State took advantage with Johnson hitting from outside for a 40-33 lead and TSU timeout. Not that the Bulldogs were so sharp themselves, combining for a stretch of four turnovers.
But Stansbury needed to experiment with some combinations and it cost mid-half cohesion at each end; the result being when a couple of Tigers drained treys from opposite corners they suddenly led again, 46-44. The deficit lasted as long as returned starter Johnson needed to pop from the arc and trigger that run out to a 59-50 advantage at six minutes.
"The second half I knew I had to be more aggressive and get to the line, and make more shots," Johnson said. The Tigers didn't score anything in another three minute stretch until Patrick Miller made one free throw.
TSU had a last gasp of sorts aided by gambling defense and easy baskets, so it took six Bulldogs hitting free throws as well to secure the success.
"Obviously it's better to win than to lose," shrugged Stansbury. "We know we've got a lot of areas we've got to bet better in at both ends. And it's not a team that's going to be very pretty." Or at least not until State gets center Renardo Sidney on the court in mid-December, then veteran point guard Dee Bost in time for the SEC opener. Until then, Stansbury expects to ride his available veterans as needed and work younger Dogs in when practical. His main concern is in the middle as senior center Elgin Bailey (2 points, 5 rebounds, 16 minutes) has to be protected while his knee gets back to full strength. "It's just a struggle for him to move and change directions. At the same time you like his experience and toughness out there."
"Right now we've got a lot of guys that just haven't played, and only game experience is going to help us. But there was some improvement from last Saturday in some areas.
"Kodi and Ray made some plays for us, and they have to. Riley was steady for us and gave us some experience, and got the ball to the right people at the right times. And Ray got to the foul line, that's a huge stat. To get 14 (free throw attempts) now is a change in his game."
Prior to the opener, rings were presented to members of and staff for the 2010 SEC Western Division champions. And at halftime, the MSU women's team were honored as the banner of their 2010 NCAA ‘Sweet 16' round season was formally presented.
The Bulldogs have a whole week to evaluate first-night results before hosting Appalachian State next Friday at 7:00.