M.L. King boys’ basketball coach Eddie Johnson knew the timing would be right this season.
The Lions had only one senior from last year’s team that went 16-9 but lost in the first round of the Region 2-AAAAA tournament to rival Stephenson. M.L. King got another shot this season in the region tournament finals and beat Stephenson to qualify for the Class AAAAA state tournament. An 86-78 win over Lowndes in triple overtime on Feb. 25 was the Lions’ first win in the state tournament since 2007.
For Johnson, the loss last year to Stephenson served as motivation to get his team to the state tournament.
“I told the kids in the locker room to remember the taste in their mouth,” Johnson said. “I told them, ‘if you don’t like it the way I don’t, then don’t let it happen again.’”
That incentive plus returning the same starting lineup has served M.L. King well all season.
With a front line composed of a pair of 6-foot-6 players—seniors De’Aires Tate and Johnny Garvin—and 6-5 sophomore Greg King, the Lions have been one of the best shooting teams in the county this season. All three shot better than 60 percent from the field, landing them among the top four in the county. As a team, the Lions are tied for second in the county with Southwest DeKalb at 53 percent.
The threesome has helped the Lions become strong defensively as the team averages nearly eight blocks per game. The backcourt of sophomore Paul Jackson and senior Tivius Guthrie has been hard for opponents to handle all season. The pair combines for nearly 15 assists per game and Guthrie, who has committed to Grambling along with Tate, leads the county in free throw shooting at 84 percent.
Guthrie is one of the best shooters in the county, also leading the area in 3-point shooting at 57 percent and he averages 14 points per game.
“We’ve been focusing on the state tournament since last season and they’re extremely hungry for it,” Johnson said.
The third-year coach, who led Miller Grove to its first state championship in 2009 before taking the job at M.L. King, has a simple mantra for his team.
“They’re all brothers, and you don’t let your brothers down,” Johnson said. “If you have that mindset, then you make sure you get that rebound or lock down on defense. If you work together as a team, then you celebrate together at the end.
Throughout the season the team concept has been prevalent, with several players sharing the scoring and rebounding loads. King had 17 points in the semifinals against Westlake and Jackson had 14 points and eight assists in the region title game against Stephenson.
The entire basketball team ran cross country last fall to stay in shape, and most took advantage of the open gym during the offseason.
“It helped us to bond,” Guthrie said. “And we all hang out on the weekends too. On the court, we’re all comfortable with each other. We all know where people like to have the ball on the floor.”
Guthrie and his teammates have taken Johnson’s message to heart.
“It’s easy to walk up to someone on the court who’s down and help them,” Guthrie said. “We tell each other what we need to hear and it’s easy to pick each other up.”