This past week, Homestead boys basketball coach Sean Crider challenged senior forward Taejuan Johnson to play up to the level Crider expects from him.
Friday night at Nicolet, Johnson did just that, as his two early steals and subsequent dunks were part of a powerful first-half surge by the Highlanders that eventually led to an impressive 68-54 win over the Knights, who were celebrating their Hall of Fame night before a big crowd.
Crider said Johnson's effort was key to a team-wide turnaround this week after tough back-to-back losses in the Rick Majerus WBY Classic over the holidays.
"We had close to our best week of practice this season," said Crider. "After the Brookfield Central loss (the second of the two losses in the WBY tourney), we had something of a 'Come to Jesus' moment. We knew we had to ramp it up. We had to practice harder and put all that good practice to good effect.
"Taejuan was one of the people I called out specifically for not playing as we well as he could be. He texted me back and said it would change. He had suffered an injury (to his knee) during the football season, and he's just now coming all the way back."
Johnson, who said his knee feels much better, finished with several steals on the night and would add a third dunk in the second half.
"We really earned this one, because we've been working hard in practice all week," he said. "We needed to bring that effort to the game."
The win improved the Highlanders to 4-1 in North Shore play and 5-3 overall, while the Knights fell to 2-2 and 5-4, respectively.
Knights coach Al Hanson said his young team needed to match the Highlanders energy, but didn't quite get there.
"They definitely set the tone early," said Hanson. "They hit us in the mouth first, and we just didn't recover from that. It was just a little disappointing, especially in front of a nice crowd. But give (the Highlanders) credit. They were a team that felt it was under-performing as far as their expectations were concerned, too. They had a great week of practice and they came ready to play."
The Highlanders hope to carry that energy over to Saturday's 2 p.m. nonconference tilt with Kenosha Bradfford at the Al McGuire Center on the Marquette campus in Milwaukee. It will be part of Germantown and Arrowhead's day-long McGuire Classic. Meanwhile, the Knights will host South Milwaukee at 7:15 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 10 in a nonconference game.
The two first-year coaches hope their teams continue to learn.
At first, Friday's game looked like it would go back-and-forth all night. Homestead had an early 10-4 lead only to have the Knights go on a 7-0 run. 3-pointer by Jayden Hardy gave them an 11-10 lead with 11:59 left in the half.
But that would prove to be the high point for Nicolet. A putback by sophomore guard Ryan Waddell gave the Highlanders the lead for good, and then came Johnson's second steal and dunk to make it 14-11 with 10:51 left in the half.
Crider said Johnson provided just the spark the Highlanders needed.
"I told the guys that we had to match their energy," said Crider, "and when Taejuan got those dunks, the fans, everyone on the court, everyone on the bench got into it."
A 3-pointer from senior forward Jack Quinlevan punctuated the 10-0 run as the Highlanders went up 20-11 with 8:54 left in the half.
The lead never dropped below 7 after that, and it was 33-26 at the break. Johnson started the second half with his third steal and dunk and before anyone could blink an eye, Homestead blew the lead open to 48-30, with 13:33 remaining. Johnson joked later that he could have had five dunks if he just executed a little better.
Hardy led Nicolet with 19 points, while Jack Brahm had 10.
Hanson said the team needs to build from this loss.
"All I can really expect from these guys is for them to give it their all and compete every night," he said. "They just need to understand that they have to do it everyday, because I don't know what it's like not to compete every day in sports, in life. It's part of the process. Maybe this will be our 'Come to Jesus' moment. I hope we can respond."
Meanwhile, Johnson had 17 points for Homestead while guard Greg Foster Jr., led the way with 23.
Crider said that this was an important win, because Nicolet will only get better as the season goes along.
"Al (Hanson) is a really good coach with great energy and he wants to bring that energy back to this gym, " he said. "So this was really good. Now we have to bring it again on Saturday at the Al. See if we can get on a bit of a streak here before going back into the heart of the conference schedule."