Sean Johnson has proven how good the boys basketball program at Notre Dame College Prep in Niles, Ill., truly is.
How else could a 6-foot-11 shot-blocking center with a deft shooting touch not be one of the top options on his high school team?
Well, the Carthage men’s basketball program is sure glad to have Johnson, a junior center who showed every ounce of what he’s capable of for the 21st-ranked Red Men in their thrilling 83-81 victory over 19th-ranked North Central on Wednesday night in a College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin opener at Tarble Arena.
Johnson was often the anchor for both Carthage’s offense and defense and finished with 14 points on 7-of-9 shooting to go with nine rebounds, six assists and a block. He at least equaled game highs in rebounds, assists and blocks.
But even the numbers weren’t indicative of Johnson’s dominant performance against the Cardinals.
“He’s special, he really is,” Carthage coach Bosko Djurickovic said. “He came in here and he didn’t know how good he was. He played on an elite suburban Chicago team, (which) might be the best team in the state this year. (Notre Dame was ranked No. 3 in Illinois Class 3A in the latest Associated Press state poll.)
“As a result, he was the third option. He was eight points, six rebounds a game. And now he’s grown two or three inches, and now his game’s gotten better and better and better. He’s special.”
Johnson admitted it took some time for him to grow into his talents.
“I was probably the fifth-best player on my high school team, so I had to shoot good shots all the time,” he said. “Otherwise my coach would yell at me, because I’m not the best player.
“But just having that confidence and working in practice and getting these shots down, it’s been a big difference for me.”
And a huge difference for the Red Men from last season to this one.
Carthage sputtered through an injury-riddled 2018-19 campaign and finished 8-17. But they’re healthy and confident this season and improved to 6-0 overall after breaking into the Top 25 earlier this week.
The Red Men already have two wins over nationally ranked opponents.
Of course, there’s a full CCIW slate left, starting with a tough road game Saturday against Illinois Wesleyan in Bloomington.
“We haven’t done anything yet,” Johnson said. “We’re just getting better and better, getting the chemistry going. It’s a long season ahead.”
Said Djurickovic: “One heck of an opener for the conference, and now you get all of a day off (and) you get to go to Wesleyan as a reward.”
Wednesday certainly showcased CCIW basketball at its finest.
Carthage senior guard Jordon Kedrowski continued his terrific start to the season with a game-high 20 points to go with four rebounds, four assists, a block and a steal. Freshman wing Fillip Bulatovic contributed 10 points and three boards off the bench, while junior TJ Best gave the Red Men a huge 14 minutes off the bench at point guard and buried three key 3-pointers late for his nine points.
But along with Johnson, it was the play of senior guard Crishawn Cook that was most vital for Carthage on Wednesday.
Cook, who started his college career as a walk-on at NCAA Division I Southern Illinois before transferring to a junior college and then to Carthage, missed last season due to injury. He’s averaging just 7.0 points per game in the starting rotation this season, but that number was bolstered by a blazing start against North Central.
The Red Men blitzed the Cardinals from the get-go, racing to a 30-10 lead in the game’s opening 9 minutes, 34 seconds. At that point, North Central coach Todd Raridon was already burning his third timeout.
Cook was magnificent in the first half, scoring 14 of his 16 points and grabbing three steals.
“That’s what we were hoping to get from Cris Cook,” Djurickovic said. “Cris Cook was the highest numbered guy (in recruiting) of all these guys out of high school. He went to SIU for a year, went to a high-powered junior college. Last year he missed because he was hurt.
“Tonight was what we were hoping to get from him.”
Cook admitted that he’s been somewhat tentative since returning from injury.
“I talked to some of my old coaches, and they were getting on me for not being aggressive,” he said. “So now I’m being aggressive for the rest of the season.”
Defensively, the Red Men dropped into a zone with Johnson and fellow 6-11 senior center Brad Perry virtually putting an eclipse on the basket.
But North Central (4-3 overall) can shoot the lights out — the Cardinals, led by junior guard Blaise Meredith’s five 3s and 17 points, shot 48.6 percent (17-of-35) from beyond the arc for the game — and some long-range bombing narrowed the gap quickly.
The Cardinals canned seven 3s as part of a 25-4 run that saw them go from down 33-14 to up 39-37 on Mike Pollack’s triple from the left wing after a nice pump fake with 2:44 left before halftime.
But Carthage closed the half on a 7-0 run, capped by Kedrowski’s putback at the buzzer, to take a 44-39 halftime lead.
“It’s definitely a game of runs,” Johnson said. “You’ve just got to maintain your composure. We had a good run, and they maintained theirs and came right back at us, and we still maintained ours. It was a tough battle the whole way.”
The teams traded punches through the first portion of the second half, but Carthage seized control with a 17-5 run that stretched its lead from 57-56 to 74-61 with 5:31 left in the game.
The run was capped when Best drilled a high-arcing 3 from the right corner off a Bulatovic feed.
“We’ve got weapons, from the starters all the way to the bench,” Cook said. “That’s why I love this team.”
The Cardinals rallied again, though, and after Best missed the front end of a one-and-one, Aiden Chang — who once ended Carthage’s season on the same floor with a buzzer-beater in the CCIW Tournament — buried a 3 from near the top of the key to pull North Central within one at 82-81 with 26 seconds to play.
Carthage senior forward Kienan Baltimore was then fouled and made his first free throw. He missed the second, though, and the Cardinals rebounded with no timeouts left and a chance to win the game with a 3.
They pushed the ball up the floor, and Matt Helwig rimmed out a stepback 3 with 8 seconds left. North Central dug out the rebound in a mad scramble, but Connor Raridon’s desperation 3 fell well short at the buzzer.
“I just was running at the ball,” Johnson of the final sequence. “I’m a good shot blocker. We had to get one at the end there. It was chaos there at the end. I’m just glad it didn’t go in the basket.”
Just another night in the CCIW.
“Give them credit,” Djurickovic said of the Cardinals. “They persevered. They’re a wonderful team. It was a good game. We’re just excited we finished ahead.”
Kenosha kicks off holiday season
Kenosha kicked off the holiday season in a big way downtown on Friday evening, with the official city tree lighting ceremony, a visit from Santa Claus, and crowds enjoying carolers and holiday cheer despite a bit gusty and drizzly day. You can send your pictures of the holidays, whether it be decorating, baking, wrapping or just enjoying family, to firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll publish them in gallery and also use some in the daily paper. Happy holidays!