Gary Johnson’s patience finally paid off.
The 6-foot-6 junior transfer spent nearly the entire season buried on the bench, but all of a sudden, he finds himself in the University at Albany starting lineup at the most exciting time of the year.
In a surprise move, Johnson started in both the America East Conference tournament quarterfinal and semifinal games, and he’ll be among the starting five once again, when the Great Danes square off against Vermont in the championship matchup Saturday morning at 11:30 at Patrick Gym in Burlington, Vt.
It’s been an interesting ride for the native of Moreno Valley, Calif. Perhaps the most complete athlete on the Great Danes’ roster, Johnson played just a total of 301 minutes all season, even though he showed glimpses of what he could do on the court with an occasional eye-opening dunk in transition or a key blocked shot.
“In my mind, I was going to make a big impact on this team as a scorer, rebounder and defender,” Johnson said. “It just took longer than I expected.”
Johnson never balked about his playing time, but he admitted he had several chats with the UAlbany coaching staff about how he could fit in.
“This system is tough to learn, and it took me a long time to fully understand all the plays,” Johnson said. “I talked to coach [Will] Brown in his office, and he told me to keep working hard, learn the plays and that I would get into the games, eventually.
“The coaches just kept telling me to stay ready and that my opportunity would come. When it finally came, I ran with it, and I thank God for the opportunity. I have to admit that it was tough. I remember going to the office to talk to the coaches quite a bit. It’s been an up-and- down year for me.”
Johnson was recruited because of his offensive and defensive abilities at Oxnard, where he led his team in scoring (17.3 points) and was second in rebounding (6.7 rpg). He was named an All-Western State All-Conference first-team selection.
“I was the main scorer on my team last year, and I was also a good rebounder and defender,” said Johnson. “I take pride in my defense. I think you can show how dominant you can be when you play tough defense and shut the other player down. That’s the fun part of the game for me. I take a lot of pride in my defense.”
“Gary Johnson definitely gives us more size on the wing, and he is an excellent defender,” said Brown. “He also helps us in our transition game. He doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective, and he can guard players at multiple positions. Gary has also made us a better rebounding team. He can rebound in a crowd. He gets those tough rebounds by simply outleaping taller players.”
In total, Johnson has appeared in 22 games, including five starts, but he is averaging just 3.6 points and 2.5 rebounds per game because frequently, he only appeared in situations where his lock-down defensive ability was needed the most. His season-high scoring output was 12 points against Stony Brook on Jan. 29, but he also had solid performances against Boston University and Maine in short stints.
Johnson wasn’t a factor either time the Great Danes played the Catamounts during the regular season. He played just a total of seven minutes in two appearances. But he hopes to play at Vermont with a different look.
“I will bring toughness and a physical presence to the game. I’m going to use my athleticism against them,” Johnson said. “I’m going to play my game. Coach Brown told me to be aggressive. He gave me the green light to shoot when I’m open and not to worry about making any mistakes.”
Johnson said he was nervous the first few times he got into games because he didn’t want to disappoint his coach. Now, he feels confident in his abilities, and he believes he can make an impact in the game’s outcome.
“This is a dream come true for me,” said Johnson. “I always dreamed of playing for a conference championship, and maybe playing in the NCAA tournament. I’m so happy to finally have the chance to help our team win.”