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Johnson leads Bonner & Prendergast to comeback win over St. Joe’s Prep

PHILADELPHIA >> At halftime Monday afternoon, Ajiri Johnson was the only occupant of Bonner & Prendergast’s locker room with even a remote reason to feel good about his performance in the opening 16 minutes.

Only one other Friar scored in the half, a dreadful frame that sent Bonner into the break down seven and busied coach Jack Concannon for an eventful conversation.

For the myriad adjustments Bonner made after the break, they preserved a steady supply of looks for Johnson, and the junior center duly rewarded them.

Johnson compiled a domineering stat line of 25 points, 15 rebounds and five blocks as Bonner came from behind to top St. Joseph’s Prep, 60-50, at Kelly Fieldhouse.

“When we came to the locker room, coach yelled at everybody and said, ‘You’ve got to put your heads in the game. Even though you’re missing shots, that doesn’t mean you don’t take more,’” Johnson said. “Coming out of the second half, they did a good job of coming back, and they kept feeding me the ball.”

Concannon called Monday the best game he’s seen from the 6-foot-9 Nigerian center, who transferred from Putnam Science Academy in Connecticut. That assessment stemmed as much from Johnson’s growing tenacity on the boards and the defensive end as the fact that he supplied 13 of Bonner’s 15 first-half points.

The prime example came in the final two minutes of the game. With Bonner up nine, Prep guard Brian Griffin stripped point man Tymir Cooper above the top of the key. Cooper pursued Griffin as he bee-lined for the tin, but so did Johnson, who made up some 30 feet of ground and leapt to swat the shot away from the weak side.

That hustle and desire is what Concannon sees as separating a talent regarded as a rising star on both sides of the Atlantic.

“I saw when he stole the ball, I almost didn’t want to go after it,” Johnson said. “We were up by (nine), so I didn’t want to make that a motivation for them to get back into the game. So I just ran after the ball. I blocked it, so that kept us in the game and kind of killed their spirit a little bit.”

Within a minute of Johnson’s emphatic denial, with Dylan Higgins and Christian Lane handling matters at the free-throw line, St. Joe’s Prep coach Speedy Morris summoned his reserves from the bench, the host Hawks down 13 in a game it led by as many as 11 in the third quarter.

“He’s a man down there,” senior wing Justin Gans said of Johnson. “He’s been doing well the last couple of games. He’s producing a lot of points for us. We’ve got to thank him, keep feeding him the ball. Even if he misses it, we go back to him because we know what he can do down there.”

The 25 points is a season-high for Johnson, who entered averaging 12.8 points per game. None of the Friars has distanced the pack in the scoring category, and the hallmark of a resurgent season has been a starting five where each player averages between nine and 13 points per outing.

Yet at halftime Monday, Bonner (12-2, 4-1 Catholic League) boasted 13 points from Johnson and just a Cooper drive to the basket at 4:13 of the second quarter in a 22-15 deficit. Everyone in a green jersey not named Johnson combined to shoot a putrid 1-for-13 from the field.

“We weren’t playing hard,” Gans said. “We needed to wake up. We came out third quarter, made shots and stuff like that. Coach was mad because he knew we could play harder, he knew what we were capable of doing. We knew we were the better team, and we came out and showed it.”

Lane started turning the tide on the first possession of the second half with a layup. Gans added three triples in the third, all off feeds by Cooper (seven assists), to tally all 10 of his points

“The first bucket goes in, the second bucket goes in, we’re back in it,” Gans said. “Down three in a matter of nothing, we’re right back in it.”

Lane buried a pair of 3s from the left wing in the final minute of the third — first putting Bonner up for the first time at 39-37 with 57 seconds to play, then beating the buzzer for a 42-37 edge.

Prep (9-4, 3-2) still remained in striking distance. Kyle Thompson, who scored 11 of his 19 in the first half, nailed a pair of 3s, replying to Gans’ third-quarter makes. Darius Kinnel, who scored 14 points, dragged Prep as close as it would get in the fourth with an and-1 near the rim early to make it 46-41.

But Prep’s shots dried up, resulting in a 5-for-17 day from 3-point range and allowing Bonner to go on a 12-4 spurt that put the game out of reach.

Of course, a couple of rim-rocking slams by Johnson in the fourth didn’t hurt either. They provided a resounding coda to a brilliant performance.

“I figured the shots weren’t falling, so I need to look for another motive to score,” Johnson said. “And they kept feeding me the ball.”

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