Garfield Heights suffered a stingy defeat at the hands of St. Vincent-St. Mary on Friday night in one of the headlining matchups in the NEO Youth Elite Christmas Classic. The Fighting Irish employed a stifling defense to come out on top 88-53.
This season, Garfield Heights is in a state of transition as the team tries to find a new identity after losing the steadying force of Alonzo Gaffney last year. After being awarded first team All-Ohio, Gaffney elected to transfer to Brewster Academy in New Hampshire. Gaffney posted a team-high 18.2 points per game in his lone season as a Bulldog.
This year, Garfield Heights is relying on a less experienced group to log meaningful minutes. Assistant coach Demetrius Johnson discussed the growth of his team after a tough slate of games in the month of December.
“We're used to having players that compete all the time,” Johnson said. “Sometimes when you have a lot of young kids coming in it takes a little longer. From the beginning of the season to now, we're finding out who does what well and what we can fix.”
St. Vincent-St. Mary was coming off consecutive victories over Chaminade (CA) and Chaminade (MO) before the matchup against Garfield Heights. As defending state champions, SV-SM is an experienced team with very few question marks outside of the point guard position.
The Fighting Irish set the tone early-on defensively, finishing off the first quarter with a 17-4 lead. In the second period, SV-SM extended that lead to 37-21, forcing turnovers and controlling the tempo of the game.
Meechie Johnson was bottled up for most of the first half, scoring just five points before heading to the locker room. The Garfield Heights backcourt of Meechie and Sonny Johnson are the subject of the opposing team's scouting report heading into every game. SV-SM head coach Dru Joyce II described his approach after the game.
“We pride ourselves on being a great defensive team. We understand this isn't soccer and teams are going to score, but if we can get multiple stops in a row and get as many runs if you will, we can have a lot of success,” Joyce said. “I don't think that they expected us to trap the ball screen and it kind of caught them by surprise, and we got a number of steals out of it.”
After intermission, Meechie Johnson began to find some openings. Back-to-back threes for Johnson energized the team as well as the crowd. Following that sequence, Johnson also forced a steal that resulted in a finish at the rim.
Meechie finished with 20 points and his cousin Sonny Johnson pitched in 17 in the loss. Malaki Branham was awarded game MVP posting 21 points, 7 Rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 blocks for SV-SM.
The dream of playing two cousins together for a school and community that means so much to their family is something that the duo relishes. Meechie talked about the pride in wearing the Bulldogs’ uniform after the game.
“When you look back, we have been growing up in Garfield being around players since Tay Jones, Tony Farmer,” Johnson said. “When we went to states, you can see us crying at the end of the bench. It was like we were part of the team. Now that we're here, it's our time. We have been waiting for this moment to give it our all and play the best we can play.”
Meechie and Sonny understand that there’s still room for growth. They cousins realize that in order to again reach that goal of a state title, it will take work— and they are prepared to do just that.