By RAY SCHAEFER
Mason County junior forward Shawn Johnson had not touched the ball for nearly three minutes of Tuesday's game against Fleming County.
His last shot was the best shot. A five-footer with 35 seconds left was just enough to give the Royals a 56-54 win at The Fieldhouse.
“I looked up, (saw) my teammate Steven Chambers,” Johnson said. “He threw it … I caught it, got a little bit of contact.”
Johnson scored the last of his 22 points to go with his nine rebounds and three blocked shot, but teammate Bryeon Gibbs was equally important for being the most intimidating Gibbs since NCIS's Leroy Jethro.
After Fleming County called a timeout with 23.5 seconds to go, Desmond McAdams inbounded to Darion Burns, who wanted to dribble right but couldn't because Gibbs cut him off, forcing Burns to dribble back out and call a 30-second break.
“I knew (Burns) was a good player going to the right, so Coach (Mason County's Chris O'Hearn) kept telling me to shove him to the left all the time, and that's what I tried to do,” Gibbs said. “Just stay in front of him, play aggressive defense without fouling. That's what I did.”
Then, perhaps the defender of the game: Chambers, for altering Troy Steward's desperation three at the buzzer. Starns said the goal was to set up screens for Steward.
“They jammed him pretty well,” Fleming County coach Mark Starns said. “(Steward) got a look. He shot it awkwardly and wasn't able to get a good shot off.”
Johnson led the Royals in scoring, but it's wrong to discount Mason County senior backup guard Lukas Greenhill's contribution off the bench. He hit five of seven 3-pointers on the way to 14 points.
“(Greenhill) was the difference-maker,” Starns said.
Thus Fleming County's (15-3) six-game winning string ended, but the Panthers are still 8-3 over its last 11. On Tuesday, they committed just two turnovers and out-rebounded Mason County 33-26.
None of that was much consolation to Starns. Not when Fleming County did the following: hit just 38.9 percent of its shots (21-of-54); made just one of 11 3-pointers; and especially not because only three players, Burns (22 points, six rebounds, four steals), Steward (18 with three rebounds) and Austin Crisp (12 points, five rebounds).
“We've got to get more production of the guys that are in the lineup and coming off the bench,” Starns said.
Yet the Panthers twice tied the game late when Burns stole a pass and drove for a layup and a 49-49 tie with 3:28 to go. Forty-seven seconds after that, Johnson’s layup, Greenhill drained his fourth 3-pointer from the left corner with 2:41 left.
“That was the play of the game,” O'Hearn said.
Was the game over? Hardly — after Crisp's four free throws and Steward's one in a little more than a minute, 54-all, 1:20 to go.
Burns missed a pair of free throws with 45 seconds left.
Johnson had eight points in the first quarter, but Mason County nevertheless took an 11-4 lead in a little more than four minutes because of two other Royals' contribution: Alex Stahl's 3-pointer; and Chambers' unhindered journey through the middle of the Panther defense.
What was worse for Fleming County, not a single point for more than three minutes of the opening stanza (Steward's two free throws), and not a field goal for nearly four (a Burns bucket with 2:53 left).
Greenhill ended the first quarter with a bucket with 1:04 to go in the first quarter and opened the second with a three from the left corner, which gave Mason County a 20-10 lead.
It was a lead that quickly evaporated. Crisp's offensive rebound of his own failed attempt to shoot over the 6-foot-7 Johnson and a fadeaway six-footer with 2 seconds left gave Fleming County a 31-30 halftime lead.
Mason County (12-7) not only stopped a two-game losing streak, it improved to 3-2 over its last five. The Royals are also 4-0 against 16th Region teams, with wins at East Carter (63-62, Dec. 17), at West Carter (69-47, Jan. 8) and at Ashland (73-67, Jan. 11).