Four years ago, Kerron Johnson turned down an offer to play at Murray State.
Saturday the pain cut deep.
Before and after bloodying his chin, Belmont’s senior point guard left the Racers in stitches – but not in a laughing matter – and lifted the Bruins to the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year and sixth in eight seasons.
His step-back jumper with 1.2 seconds left in overtime propelled Belmont to a 70-68 victory over Murray State in the championship game of the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament at Municipal Auditorium.
The senior also stopped, spun and popped a fadeaway game-tying jumper with 9.1 seconds left in regulation to cap a ferocious rally for Belmont, which trailed 58-51 with 3:10 left.
“I guess if you coach long enough, you’re in a game like that,” coach Rick Byrd said. “That’s a pretty good one to come along. The shots he made and the plays he made, pretty incredible.”
Johnson, the tournament MVP, scored just 12 points while dishing out six assists and making three steals.
He made four baskets as he focused more of his attention on guarding co-OVC player of the year Isaiah Canaan. That was a tall task in itself as Canaan scored 22 points and had 10 assists. But he dribbled off his foot for backcourt violation with 25 seconds left to set up Johnson’s game-winner.
“He is so good offensively, man,” Johnson said. “He has so many moves. All game I was just pretty focused on doing my job and my job was to slow him down. You can’t stop him. You can just make every shot as hard as it possibly can be. That is what I focused on doing. When my offensive chances came, I took them.”
That he did.
After Murray’s Ed Daniel failed to ice the win by missing two free throws with 20 seconds left, Johnson got the ball with Belmont trailing 62-60. Johnson drove the lane, stopped 10 feet away, spun and lofted a floater over Daniel.
“He is just solid. He is not going to do anything he can’t,” Canaan said. “He just made some crucial shots down the stretch.”
In overtime, he missed a minute after getting knocked hard to the ground by Daniel while going up for a shot. His bloody chin was bandaged – and later received four stitches – but Johnson returned to once again be the hero. This time, he drove almost to the identical spot and fell back as he drained a jumper over Jeffery Moss.
“You always talk about when you’re shooting just having that spot on the floor where you are most comfortable at,” Johnson said. “I think those two shots were right in the same area. I’m really comfortable from that area and at that range, whether it be a floater or pull-up. I knew if I could get to that range I was pretty confident it was going down.”
Johnson’s clutch shots now leave no doubt that Belmont is headed back to the Big Dance. Believed to be serious candidates for an at-large bid with an RPI of 22, the Bruins need not worry after concluding their first year in the OVC.
They knocked off the defending tournament champs despite the best efforts of Canaan and Stacy Wilson, who scored 22 points and made five 3-pointers. But thanks to forcing 26 turnovers and four players scoring in double figures, including a team-high 18 from J.J. Mann, Belmont recorded the 1,000th win in program history.
In coaching more than a thousand games, Byrd guesses he has been on the winning side of maybe just two or three last-second shots.
On Saturday, Johnson provided the rare late-game drama and ensured the Bruins were going dancing once again.
“He does it the right way and as a team you want to give him that memory,” Johnson said. “You want to be able to give him something. This senior class really set out to do that and hopefully we leave him with a bigger memory in a few weeks. Just to be able to give him that moment is special for all of us.”