Lakota East's Will Johnston dribbles the ball defended by Hamilton's Payton Pennington during their basketball game Friday, Jan. 11 at Lakota East High School in Liberty Township. Hamilton won 65-62. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF
Photo: Nick Graham
Photo: Nick Graham

Lakota East lost a team leader to a gruesome leg injury. His close friend stepped in to lead a deep tournament run.

LIBERTY TWP. — Will Johnston went from being a guy with potential to a must-guard guy over the course of a single Lakota East High School basketball game.

The date was Jan. 15, 2019. Johnston, a senior guard, started the home contest against Oak Hills on the bench. And then all of a sudden, junior teammate Alex Mangold went down with a gruesome leg injury that included two broken bones.

“I didn’t see much,” Johnston recalled. “I looked away when I saw a little bit.”

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The 6-foot-7 Mangold was clearly done for the season and eventually underwent surgery. But there was still a game to finish.

Would somebody step up? Or would the Thunderhawks’ season take a turn for the worse as quickly as Mangold hit the floor?

Enter Johnston.

A little motivation can go a long way. He wanted to get back in the starting lineup and in the good graces of East coach Clint Adkins. More importantly, he wanted to play for his fallen buddy.

“It was really emotional losing Alex,” Johnston said. “It really got me going for sure because he’s one of my best friends. It was motivation to go play for him because I know he’d want to be here every step of the way.”

Johnston’s line from that night: 27 points, 6-of-9 from 3-point range, three rebounds. Before that, he had scored in double figures once in his LEHS career (10 points at Fairfield as a junior).

Adkins said Johnston’s showing was simply one part of an evening that felt like a ride on the world’s biggest roller coaster.

“You go through every single emotion,” Adkins said. “Honestly, I didn’t know how to handle that situation. I was an emotional wreck as well. When you see our kids invest as much time as they do in this and then something like this happens, you’re heartbroken for the kid.

“But then you see the love and compassion from our guys and how they rallied around him. You see a guy like Will who had been struggling offensively step up and say, ‘Let’s go. Get on my back. We’re going to win this one for Alex.’ It’s just, ‘Oh my God.’ There wasn’t a dry eye on the sideline.”

The Thunderhawks beat Oak Hills 56-34 en route to capturing the Greater Miami Conference championship. Johnston was back in the starting lineup the next game and has remained there.

So where exactly did his breakout performance come from?

Lakota East’s Will Johnston defends Fairmont’s Kellan Bochenek during last Saturday’s Division I district basketball final at the University of Dayton Arena. East won 50-36. RICK CASSANO/STAFF

“I needed to step up,” Johnston said. “I think I’ve gained a lot of confidence from that. In a game like that, because you know every shot you take is most likely going in, you just want the ball. Your teammates will find you when you’re hitting shots. They knew they could count on me after that game.”

Adkins talks about pre-and post-Mangold numbers when it comes to the 6-0 Johnston.

In the eight games beford Mangold got hurt, he averaged 4.9 points game. Since Mangold got hurt, he has averaged 12.9 points per game, hitting double digits 10 times.

“Something flipped,” Adkins said. “We knew he was capable of that. He’s really, really streaky shooter. He’s one of those guys that if hits one or two, you’re just like, ‘Oh, just shoot the next one. I don’t care where you’re at.’ ”

Johnston shot 44.7 percent on 3-pointers coming off the bench last season. This year, through his first eight games, Johnston was 5-of-33 from beyond the arc.

Part of that, unbeknown to the coaches at the time, was the fact that Johnston had mono and played through it.

“Will is a phenomenal shooter, so for him to shoot like that, we felt something was wrong,” Adkins said. “We came to find out there was. I’m sure it had something to do with his legs and his energy.”

Johnston didn’t know he had mono either, at least for a while. He just thought he was getting worn down by school and practice.

“I was always tired,” Johnston said. “My throat started to hurt, so I finally went in and got tested.”

He sat out three games — Dec. 21 against Oak Hills, Dec. 28 against Dublin Coffman and Dec. 29 against Dublin Jerome — and returned to action at Sycamore on Jan. 4.

“I still came to every practice,” Johnston said. “I tried to be the best team manager that I could, doing anything Coach needed me to do that wasn’t basketball-related.”

It took a while for him to start feeling comfortable again on the floor. And then came Jan. 15.

Adkins said Johnston is one of the team’s best defensive players, often drawing the assignment to defend the opponent’s best guard.

Johnston said he started to take his defensive game to another level last season after getting hit with some hard reality as a sophomore. He admitted that his mind-set was pretty much all offense in his younger playing days.

“I was put just on varsity as a sophomore and then I didn’t take care of the ball and I couldn’t play defense, so then he moved me down to JV and varsity,” Johnston said. “I knew coming into my junior year that I had to work on my defense. It was just a progression of that.”

Johnston’s ascension over the second half of this season helped East go 15-1 in the GMC. The Thunderhawks have reached the Division I regional for the third time in school history and will face defending state champion Moeller on Wednesday night at Xavier University’s Cintas Center.

Johnston isn’t looking forward to the end of his prep career, though he’s got plenty of basketball ahead of him. He’s down to Defiance and Mount St. Joseph as his two collegiate possibilities.

Mangold is expected to return for his senior season and could be back in action this summer. Johnston, wherever he is, will be rooting for him.

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