Had his future wife not finagled a tryout for him at a local junior college four years ago, Montana's Anthony Johnson never would have been in position to lead the Grizzlies to an improbable NCAA tournament berth on Wednesday night.
In fact, he probably wouldn't be playing basketball at all.
Johnson was washing dishes at a seafood restaurant trying to earn money to buy a car in 2005 when he started dating a college point guard who saw untapped basketball potential in him that others didn't. Shaunte Nance-Johnson eventually decided to transfer to a school in the Tacoma, Wash., area so that she could be closer to Johnson, only choosing Yakima Valley Community College after persuading the men's basketball coach to give her boyfriend a chance as well.
"It was hard for me to see that potential in Anthony and not see him put him it to work," Nance-Johnson recalled. "I had seen Anthony play pick-up games at the YMCA, and this kid was dunking like crazy. I was like, 'Dude, I know you can play with these college guys. I've seen them play and they're not as aggressive, they're not as athletic and they're not as talented.'"
The bargain Nance brokered revived Johnson's basketball career and put him on a path toward blossoming into easily the most jaw-dropping story of March so far. The 6-foot-3 senior scored 34 of his Big Sky tournament record 42 points in the second half of Wednesday's 66-65 victory in the title game, singlehandedly willing Montana back from a 20-point halftime deficit to stun top-seeded Weber State.
"To do it on the main stage in front of the country and to get a win of that magnitude, it's just crazy," Johnson said by phone on Thursday from the team bus on the way back to Missoula. "Right after high school. I was done. I had no more opportunities to play and to come from that and now I'm going to the Big Dance, it's remarkable to think about. It's been quite a journey."
Although Johnson averaged a team-high 18.9 points per game for Montana this season, he'd never had a superhuman night like this before. On Wednesday, Johnson was simply unstoppable in the second half, beating two and three Weber State defenders by getting to the rim, pulling up for mid-range jumpers or sticking an occasional contested 3-pointer.
To better understand what Johnson accomplished Wednesday, consider this for a moment:
• He scored Montana's final 21 points of the night.
• He shot 11 of 15 in the second half and 14 of 14 from the free throw line.
• He buried the go-ahead shot with 10 seconds to go, weaving through defenders until he found a sliver of light at the elbow and sinking a pull-up jumper to win it.
"We were going to get it to A.J.," Montana coach Wayne Tinkle told reporters after the game. "We're going to ride him."
Maybe the best part of Johnson's story is that he got the chance to return the favor his wife once did for him.
When Division I scholarship offers began pouring in for Johnson after he blossomed into an elite scorer at Yakima Valley, he told coaches that he'd only consider their school on one condition: They find a spot for his wife on the women's team.
"I was heavily recruited out of my junior college and so was she, but nobody would take a chance on both of us," Johnson recalled. "I told them if you don't accept both of us, you don't get me, and instantly I'm getting hang-ups. Nobody really wanted the baggage, but Montana was different."
Johnson and his wife took a joint recruiting visit to Montana two years ago, both leaving Missoula with scholarship offers. Shaunte Nance-Johnson now averages 21 minutes a game off the bench for the Grizzlies women's team, which plays in the Big Sky semifinals on Friday night and stands two wins away from also qualifying for the NCAA tournament.
"It felt good for me to to return that favor to her because she really put her neck on the line for me when she could have lost the opportunity to play," Johnson said. "It has been a fairytale. It's worked out so well for the both of us."