Kent, OH- Garfield Heights head coach Sonny Johnson smiled ear to ear post game in the locker room as his team celebrated a narrow 38-37 win that came down to the last seconds.
"You see a great team in front of you honestly. To be without arguably the toughest guy on our team and still win is big," Johnson said postgame.
Senior guard Tommie Benn III was unable to play due to injuring his ankle in the team's district win over Cleveland Heights last weekend which led to a face familiar to the Wildcat program needing to step up even more for the Bulldogs.
Junior two-way guard Calvin “CJ” Little faced his former team for the first since transferring to Garfield, a team whom he helped reach back-to-back state final fours. Beating them was a feeling not only he wanted, but his teammates where 100% behind him to ensure it happened.
"It was an emotional game. My mom was crying. To come from a private school where we went to two straight final fours, transfer, then beat this team without one of our starters is just crazy right now," Little said after the game.
Both teams showcased their great defense early in the game allowing neither to score double digits in the first quarter. The Wildcats led 8-6 after the first quarter.
Garfield opened the second on a 4-0 run to take the lead behind a layup from junior big man DeAndre Jones. Coach Cam Joyce then switched to a full court trap to challenge the Bulldogs offense capable of getting hot at any moment during the game.
The Wildcats trap seemed successful most of the second allowing the team to go on a 8-0 scoring run from senior forward Braydn Szczpaniak with two layups and pair of free throws. Junior guard Ace Buckner made a diving layup to give the team a 16-10 lead with just over threes minutes before the half.
The Bulldogs stormed back with a run of their own behind Little, Jyles Brandon, and Wilberforce commit Germainn Marshall. Marshall and Brandon made back-to-back and-one layups to trim the deficit. Jones threw down a powerful dunk with 2 seconds left to electrify the Dawg Pound that traveled as the team went into the half down 18-16.
Both teams started the second half with the same intensity. The Wildcats defense seemed troublesome at times for the Bulldogs in the quarter. After both teams were tied at 24, Buckner forced Johnson in a tough corner threw before he came down and hit a triple of his own to give the team a three point lead late in the quarter.
Junior big man Reece Robinson found himself open in the the lane for a layup giving the Wildcats a 29-24 lead going into the final quarter. The Wildcat student section whom been heckling both Little and Johnson all game was at the loudest it could be.
The Bulldogs started the fourth on a 10-2 run including the first made triple of the game from Marcus Johnson to give Garfield a three point lead. Sophmore forward Damon Fiery scored four of his six total points in the late minutes.
Robinson exited the game shortly after with a left ankle injury and would not be able to return after running into teammate Carter Jackson.
As, both teams were tied at 37 with 34.8 seconds left in the game, Marcus Johnson why he was the first freshman to win LEL Player of the Year. The relentless guard muscled his way to the rim while being fouled giving the Bulldogs a much closer chance at states.
Johnson split the pair before sprinting over the the Wildcat student section to give them a taste of their own troll medicine.
"The moment got me for a second," Johnson said postgame. "I told CJ before the game I got you, so I wanted to win this one for CJ."
Johnson finished the game with 12 points, three assists and two steals including a perfect 7-7 behind the free throw line. Jones contributed in a big way as usual with 6 points, 11 rebounds, and 3 blocks. Buckner led the Wildcats with 11.
The Wildcats season ends with a record of 19-8. The Bulldogs (22-3) are back in Kent Saturday against the Toledo St. John's Jesuit Titans. Game starts at 2 p.m.