ANAHEIM, Calif. — He was only a freshman when it happened but it’s a lesson Stanley Johnson continues to carry with him through the final days of his high school career.
Mater Dei was playing a Trinity League game at Orange Lutheran and he missed four free throws down the stretch. The result was a three-point loss for the Monarchs. When the Lancers visited Mater Dei later that season, the league title was on the line and to Johnson it seemed like "every alumni that played basketball" at Mater Dei was present to make sure that group of Monarchs didn’t relinquish what, at the time, was a streak of 22 consecutive league championships. Had they lost, it would’ve been because "that freshman" missed those free throws earlier in the year at OLu, or so Johnson thought.
When he stepped to the line on Saturday night at Honda Center, those memories were fresh in his mind as he lifted the Monarchs to a 48-44 win over Chino Hills in the Open Division, capturing the 22nd CIF sectional crown in school history.
Johnson sank all eight of his free throw attempts in the fourth quarter on his way to a game high 28-point performance. He was just 3 of 6 from the free-throw line in the first half. All of his misses came on the first attempt. At the end of the first half, Mater Dei assistant Max Hoskins told him on each trip he was rushing on the front end but took his time on the second end.
"In the second half I over exaggerated taking my time on free throws and it ended up working out for me," Johnson said. "If I don’t make those free throws we lose the game and I end up being mad at myself forever about it.
"I’ve been there before …where free throws have come down to winning and losing games. I’ve lost those before and I won those. So, this is one of those games that I won."
On a night in which the Monarchs second-leading scorer Rex Pflueger played just 21 minutes in the game and just four in the first half because of foul trouble, the Monarchs (31-0) found themselves facing an early 7-1 deficit.
If I don’t make those free throws we lose the game and I end up being mad at myself forever about it.
It was at that point, the flip switched. If Johnson and Mater Dei were going to rid themselves of the frustration that has consumed them in sectional finals of the past, he needed to put the game on his shoulders.
"Stanley’s just unbelievable, guys" Mater Dei head coach Gary McKnight said. "I can’t say anything more about him. He just willed that win. Have you seen very few players that can just take a team over and say ‘Hey, we’re not playing great’ and just carried us on his back.
"One of the best we’ll ever see, I promise you that."
Thanks to Johnson, the Monarchs overcame their early deficit and outscored Chino Hills (26-5) 19-5 in the second quarter to take a 26-14 lead into the locker room at halftime.
The third quarter, however, saw the Huskies storm back, forcing six Mater Dei turnovers in the period and creating all types of havoc with their 2-2-1 full court pressure.
After 13 points in the first half, Johnson didn’t score his first points of the second half until there was just less than 30 seconds left in the third period. Those points came at the free’throw line. Coincidentally, the same place he sealed the deal for the Monarchs. It’s the first ever Open Division title handed out by the CIF Southern Section but Johnson wants more.
As he took questions from the media following Saturday night’s win, Johnson spoke about not being satisfied with the Open Division win. He likened it to winning a conference tournament championship at the next level, saying he hopes his team still has four more games to play. McKnight interjected.
"I’m going to enjoy this," the head coach said.
"Yeah, he’ll enjoy it," Johnson fired back with a smile looking at his head coach.
The razor sharp focus he exhibited at the free-throw line on Saturday night had spilled over into the postgame press conference.