KANSAS CITY, Mo. — All he needed was the opportunity.
DJ Johnson made the most of it Thursday night, coming off the bench to provide Kansas State with a needed lift inside against Texas in the Big 12 Championship quarterfinals at the Sprint Center.
The freshman forward scored a career-high eight points and hauled down seven rebounds in 15 minutes on a night when starter Jordan Henriquez struggled to get anything going against the Longhorns and Thomas Gipson battled constant foul trouble.
It was exactly what the 11th-ranked Wildcats needed, especially in the second half as K-State pulled away from Texas for a 66-49 victory and advanced to tonight’s semifinal matchup against Oklahoma State.
“I’m not sure what lit the fire tonight, but he was sure good,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said of Johnson, who was 4 for 4 from the field.
Johnson scored six points and grabbed six rebounds in the second half, including a big dunk with 9:39 to play when he followed a missed 3-pointer from Martavious Irving with the rebound and slam to put the Wildcats ahead 51-38 to help key a 11-0 run.
“All year, it’s been a key to our team, that we are a team and we can come at you with a lot of different people,” Weber said.
Johnson has only played 15 minutes or more twice since mid December and hasn’t scored more than four points in a game since Nov. 23 when he had seven against Michigan. The 6-foot-8 St. Louis native failed to score in 13 of the 18 Big 12 games this season.
“DJ was tremendous from the moment his name was called,” said Henriquez, who had just two points and one rebound in 10 minutes Thursday. “He came out and rebounded and found the right spots on offense and creating second-chance opportunities for us.”
Junior guard Will Spradling said he’s seen Johnson building toward a night like this all season.
“When he comes in, he leaves his mark,” Spradling said. “He’s a banger and gets on the glass. Once he puts that first one through the net, you can see his confidence building right there.”
For Johnson, it really is all about that newfound confidence he had against the Longhorns. More importantly, it’s about the confidence Weber showed by continually going to Johnson down the stretch.
“It shows that they trust me,” said Johnson, who also had a big steal in the second half. “I just tried to come in and rebound, help the team out any way I could.”
Shane Southwell said the key for Johnson Thursday was that the game slowed down enough for him to make key contributions. Going forward, if Johnson can again tap into the kind of performance he saved for Texas, the Wildcats could be sitting pretty with the NCAA tournament looming.
“The game just needs to slow down a little bit for him and you saw what he can do if it does,” Southwell said. “It’s huge… We go three deep at the center position and that’s big for any team.”