MATTHEWS — If Greensboro Day was ever going to knock off Oak Hill Academy, it was going to do it with defense. That’s been the Bengals’ calling card for as long as legendary coach Freddy Johnson has been leading the school’s boys basketball program.
So it was no surprise that when Greensboro Day knocked off the national powerhouse Saturday night, 55-54, the Bengals took control by holding Oak Hill without a field goal for more than six minutes to start the fourth quarter. What was out of character was that GDS played zone.
Johnson and longtime assistant Jeff Smith, the Bengals’ de facto defensive coordinator, have made stifling, half-court man-to-man a foundational principle of the program. But facing an Oak Hill team loaded with big-time recruits in their second game of the season, the Bengals decided to try something different.
Johnson’s son, Robert, helped GDS install a matchup 2-3 zone in practice last week as a change of pace, something to throw at Oak Hill on a few possessions. The hope was that they could slow a Warriors team that went into the game averaging 108 points this season.
But when Bengals guard Nik Graves got into foul trouble in the first half, Greensboro Day went all-in on the zone. They disguised it by showing a man-to-man look to Oak Hill until after the first pass, when the defense would morph into the 2-3.
“We did a little combination where we act like we’re in man and we’re in zone,” Freddy Johnson said. “We did a really good job with that.”
The first half didn’t start well for the Bengals as only senior guard Nik Graves was able to score in the first quarter against a long athletic Oak Hill team, which led 16-5 even without injured Kentucky recruit Chris Livingston.
“Their point guard, we couldn’t handle him,” Johnson said of 6-foot-4 Duke recruit Caleb Foster.
It didn’t appear that Greensboro Day could handle any of the Warriors as the visitors from Mouth of Wilson, Va., went up 29-14 with 2:42 left in the half. But Bengals junior guard Jaydon Young scored eight points in the final five minutes of the second quarter and senior forward Michael Zanoni hit a three-pointer with 3.7 seconds left to make it 29-23.
GDS trailed 40-36 going to the fourth quarter as Zanoni and junior forward Graham Worland combined to score all of their team’s 14 points in the period. The Bengals’ zone continued to slow Oak Hill and allowed GDS to make it a half-court game.
“We kind of played it like Carolina’s matchup zone, and that was the key for us,” Johnson said. “We played zone 12 or 14 minutes of the 16 in the second half.”
GDS took control of the game by outscoring Oak Hill 14-3 in the opening six minutes of the final quarter and led 50-43 before the inevitable late run by coach Steve Smith’s Warriors. But Graves hit five three throws in the final 2:13 and the Bengals held on for one of the biggest wins in the Greensboro Day program’s history.
“Nik Graves was great down the stretch for us,” Johnson said. “That’s a win that I’ll never forget, beating a team of that caliber and as well-coached as a Steve Smith team.”
The game, part of a two-day event at Carmel Christian School put together by Phenom Hoops founder Rick Lewis, had been billed as the Battle of the GOATs because of the legendary stature of the two head coaches. Smith, who has been at Oak Hill since 1983, is the third-winningest boys basketball coach of all time with 1,204. Johnson, who took over at Greensboro Day in 1977, is now eighth with 1,106.
Where does Saturday night’s win rank among those 1,106 for Johnson? It’s right at the top, along with the Bengals’ 59-40 victory over Bradenton (Fla.) IMG Academy in 2017 at the Dick’s Nationals.
“Maybe the win over IMG Academy at Dick’s was a little bigger because it was a bigger stage on ESPNU,” Johnson said, “but this was a great win for our program.”
Next up for Greensboro Day
Tuesday, at Bethany Community School.
Oak Hill 16 13 11 14 — 54
Greensboro Day 5 18 13 19 — 55
Oak Hill Academy (5-1)
Devin Ree 14, Judah Mitz 13, Caleb Foster 7, Christian Reeves 7, James Gregory 6, Justin McBride 2, Xavier Brown 2.