Johnson, Montana win one for the ages

March, 11, 2010
Anthony Johnson had spaced on his halftime ritual. He was already on the court at Weber State when he realized he had forgotten to rub lotion on his hands.

It's a bit of an obsessive habit, one that Johnson says is weird but he can't forget. He did on Wednesday night. And to Johnson if he doesn't put the lotion on, the touch of the basketball isn't the same.

Montana coach Wayne Tinkle was outside the visitor's locker room at halftime. He had emerged a bit too soon with more than three minutes before the second half, trying to collect his thoughts after watching the Grizzlies go down by 20 points in the Big Sky title game in Ogden, Utah.

"And then with 35 seconds left on the clock, here comes Anthony running past me and says, 'Coach you're going to see a different player in the second half,'' Tinkle said Thursday morning.

"I made sure I made eye contact with him,'' Johnson said.

Johnson, a 6-foot-3 senior guard, was more than a "new man" as he later termed. He was something special, nothing quite like anyone had seen in the Big Sky. He has been the story of championship week so far. Sure, Harold "The Show" Arceneaux of Weber State put on a display to beat North Carolina in the first round of the 1999 NCAA tournament in Seattle. And yes, that was on a larger stage. But even Arceneaux would be hard pressed to match what Johnson did to get the Grizzlies into the NCAA tournament this year.

And to learn of Johnson's path to get to this moment makes it even more worthy of a story retelling.

Johnson scored 34 of Montana's 46 second-half points, including the final 21, to lead the Grizzlies to an improbable 66-65 conference title on the road at a stunned Dee Events Center. Johnson outscored Weber 34-25 in the second half. He finished with 42 points, making all 14 free throws, 13 of 22 from the field and playing all 40 minutes.

"I've never seen anything like it. I turned into a fan,'' Tinkle said by phone as he drove back to Missoula on Thursday morning in advance of Selection Sunday. "During a timeout late in the game, I just told the team to get the hell out of his way.''

Johnson, still in his Ogden hotel room Thursday morning, said he was looking at his most valuable player trophy sitting on the dresser, trying to conceptualize what had occurred in the past 24 hours. He was certainly humble in saying the team's defensive stops in the second half were a must if he was going to score and the team was going to catch Weber.

"This is crazy,'' Johnson said. "It's really straight out of a movie.''

Here's why, according to Johnson.

His father left his mother when Johnson was 6 months old. Johnson bounced around the country with his mother in the West and in the South.

"We moved a lot,'' Johnson said of being with his mother, a single parent to three kids with Johnson being the oldest. "She had different jobs and relationships that fell through for her.''

Johnson reconnected with his father when he was 12 and went to live with him in Pasadena, Calif., from ages 12 to 14 before his mother moved to Tacoma, Wash. He went back to live with her for high school.

Johnson needed to find some sort of focus and settled on basketball in his last two yeas at Stadium High in Tacoma. When he finished school he still was lost, unsure of what he should do. That's when he met Shaunte Nance, who was a stud women's player at nearby Foss High.

Nance had a scholarship offer to go to Northwest Nazarene University, a Division II school in Idaho. She left Johnson in Tacoma and went for the first year.

"She loved it,'' Johnson said.

But the connection between the two was strong enough to make her reconsider her path with Johnson unsure about his life.

"I was in a dead-end job at a restaurant as a dishwasher,'' Johnson said. There was frustration on both sides that Johnson had let a promising basketball career just fade away. Nance told Johnson that he was better than the players she had seen and he had to do something about it. They would -- together.

"She got me a tryout at Yakima Valley Community College,'' Johnson said, recalling how Shaunte made herself available at the women's junior college level. "It was really a tryout. Shaunte said we were a package deal. They had to take us both.''

Johnson averaged 24.4 points a game in leading Yakima to a regional championship.

There have been package deals going on for quite a while in college basketball. But the majority of time they always involve a coach and a player, maybe a father and a player, but rarely if ever have you heard of a couple that had to come together and play basketball.

Shaunte and Anthony, both now 23 years old were married on Nov. 1, 2006, prior to the start of the Yakima season.

"He wasn't recruited, there were grade issues so he needed an extra semester to graduate from high school,'' Tinkle said. "She got him to go to a junior college. She's the one that got him to play.''

The package deal didn't stop at the junior college level. Johnson said he could have gone to other schools, even though Montana was the first to pursue him. But the two had to go together. Tinkle and women's coach Robin Selvig were in agreement that they had to take the pair.

"Robin told me after 10 minutes of offering Shaunte a scholarship, he said you've got Anthony too,'' Tinkle said.

Anthony and Shaunte have now completed the rare double -- both contributed to a NCAA appearance for Montana. Nance-Johnson was a backup guard on last season's Montana Big Sky championship team that lost to Pitt in the first round and now Johnson has single-handedly put the Grizzlies in the Big Dance.

"I went to see them celebrate getting in,'' Johnson said of the women's team. "Once you see that, you want to be a part of it as well. This still hasn't hit me, and it might not for a while.''

Johnson was the Big Sky newcomer of the year last season, averaging 18 points, three rebounds and three assists a game on 50 percent shooting. (He also shot 87 percent at the line and 35 percent on 3-pointers.)

The past two seasons Tinkel has seen Johnson go off in stretches during which he can take the team on short runs.

"He's surpassed all the expectations,'' Tinkle said. "The sky's the limit with him. He has one of the best pull-up jumpers I've ever seen. He gets the ball at the top of his head as quick as anyone I've seen.''

Tinkle said NBA and international connections were curious about Johnson, and after Wednesday night's performance the interest will only increase. If Johnson can lead Montana to a win in the NCAA first round, his profile will be even more enhanced.

"What he's done also is mature and improved as a leader,'' Tinkle said.

Montana won at Oregon and nearly clipped Washington earlier in the season. But this team was dead at halftime in the title game and would have been forgotten had Weber held on for the win. Now there is no way Johnson and the Grizzlies can be erased from the Selection Sunday storylines.

Andy Katz | email

ESPN Senior Writer


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