In the second halves of games, where the pressure is amplified, Gorloks teammates and even opponents know Josh Johnson will be the player with the ball in his hands with the game on the line.
Even with that burden, Johnson has nothing to fear in those big moments because the big shots he takes in front of pack crowds are the same ones he emulates countlessly in empty gyms.
“When I’m in that situation, I don’t feel pressure,” Johnson said. “I want to take that shot because I’ve practiced it so many times.”
The highlight of Johnson’s late-game success came during a St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SLIAC) semifinal game. In that game, Johnson made a game-winning layup with three seconds left to send the Gorloks to the championship match, prompting a celebration at midcourt.
Johnson said he could not recall the first time he hit a game-winning shot, but surely remembers the shot against Blackburn College as one of the greatest moments of his basketball career.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” Johnson said. “As a player, you live for those types of moments, to take the game-winning shot, and make it.”
One reason for Johnson’s abnormal comfort during critical points in games stem from the work Johnson does with Jacob Hedgcorth, a former collegiate basketball player and head trainer of program called Two Dribble Basketball. Hedgcorth said Johnson’s work ethic was unmatched among anyone he trains with, at any level of basketball.
“I train over 170 different athletes. I don’t have any player that works as hard as Josh does,” Hedgcorth said. “It’s not just what he does in that workout for two hours. He does that everyday. Great things are going to come to Josh because of his work ethic.”
Hedgcorth also said that with their training sessions, he works Johnson to the limit, ensuring that anything he sees in the game will just be second nature.
“If you were to see a workout, I put him through the highest intensity of situations, harder than what he’s going to see in the game,” Hedgcorth said. “That way he’s not afraid of those moments. And that’s a mentality thing.”
That 70-68 triumph over Blackburn College represents his most recent success in the fourth quarter, but Johnson had been proving himself since the beginning of the season.
In the Gorloks’ season opener, the junior guard saved his best for last, scoring 13 points in the second half to fuel a breakaway victory. Two weeks later, he hit a pair of crucial free throws, and then connected on a three-pointer to create a cushion during an overtime win over Eastern University in the Maryville College Classic tournament in November.
In February, Johnson again provided a game-winning layup to push the Gorloks over Westminster College. In the final game of the season, the SLIAC Championship, Eureka coach Chip Wilde became one of few coaches to devise a scheme that kept the ball from Johnson on the final play. As a result, the Gorloks fell just short in a 70-69 loss.
Gorloks head coach Chris Bunch said Johnson was the hardest working player he’d ever coached, and commended him for what he had done this past season.
“He’s been so good for us late in games. Obviously, we wish we could have gotten it to him in that Eureka game, but they did a great job of denying the inbounds pass,” Bunch said.
The loss was particularly stunning to the Gorloks, a team that had put together a 14-3 record in games decided by ten points or less this season heading into that game.
It had been one of the few times this season at Johnson’s heroics were nullified by the defensive attention of the opposing team. Johnson, though, said he believes the team would be poised to have a similar season next year.
Johnson’s fourth quarter success in 2018-19 is not an anomaly. Dating back to his days as an All-Conference player at Clayton High School, and last season’s breakout campaign. The highlight of this surge came in a 76-73 overtime victory over Blackburn College, in which Johnson iced the game with two of his 16 free throws in that game.
If his coaches’ praise of his work ethic are any indication, there is a chance Johnson could once again see a large jump in his production. From his freshman season to his junior year, Johnson has gone from 1.8 points per game to 13.5, and now a team-high 18 points per game.