Farewell, Nate Johnson – Banners on the Boardwalk
In the annals of Xavier transfer guard lore, Nate Johnson had quite a legacy to live up to. Players like Jordan Carwford, Remy Abell and Malcolm Bernard came to Xavier from other schools and left an imprint on the program and the hearts of Xavier fans in the process. After two years of nets burning, relentless defense and an NIT title, Nate Johnson joins these names and many more among Xavier’s transfer greats.
Johnson showed what it’s all about almost as soon as he set foot on the Cintas Center floor. After a strong showing at the Xavier Invitational, he stepped up overtime against Eastern Kentucky to hit three straight possessions to wrest control of the game from the Colonels and propel Xavier to victory. He put in an effective performance in the Crosstown Shootout and led the way in Xavier’s historic playoff against Oklahoma, hitting 7 of Xavier’s 19 program records that night. In the Big East game he hit 4 threes in a game 4 times and was on track to contribute to Xavier’s March run before a leg injury saw him end the season on a streak of 2-17 and his season ends Feb. 21. Johnson had been a huge contributor to Xavier’s success early in the season, but could only watch like all of us as the losses piled up and Xavier lost his last chance to go to the NCAA Tournament by losing to Butler in overtime.
Against that backdrop, Johnson was quick to announce his intention to return for his extra year of eligibility, announcing his intention to take care of “unfinished business” just 6 days after Xavier’s season ended. Johnson put on a solid opening streak, before serving up a performance Xavier fans won’t soon forget. As Xavier lost 3 starters to a future ACC Tournament Champion Virginia Tech team, Johnson went ahead and put Xavier on his back. He put in a virtuoso performance, going 10-14 from the floor and losing 30 of Xavier’s 59 points, including a game-winning three with 25 seconds left. In a situation that seemed hopeless, Nate stepped up and made the difference for Xavier to secure a vital win. As 2021 prepared to turn into 2022, Johnson would drop a huge shot on Marquette in Game 1 of the Big East, hitting a corner three with 25 seconds left to help avoid a Golden Eagles mid-charge second. January would prove difficult for Nate as he struggled with a slump for most of it, but his 4 ½ seconds at Creighton on the 29th helped X erase a 17-point half-time deficit and establish some momentum in February. . On Feb. 11, Johnson cashed in a buzzer as he beat three to end the first half against UConn before taking a bad fall battling Tyrese Martin for a rebound with 3:20 left. Again he would be out of order for Xavier on the end of the line and once again they would miss him.
Xavier was ranked in the AP poll and sat 17-7 overall and 7-6 in the Big East when Johnson fell. When he returned to the starting lineup for Senior Night against Georgetown, Xavier was 17-12 and any thoughts of the AP poll or a stress-free draft Sunday were a distant memory. Johnson would drop 25 on Pat Ewing’s hapless Hoyas, but Xavier’s loss to Butler in overtime (again) would mean there would be no return to the NCAA Tournament for Johnson. Instead, his career would end with an NIT race, and what a race it was. None of Johnson’s lines from the tournament are worthy of prose, but he was an absolute warrior in his last run with the Musketeers. Against Florida, he had 16 points and was instrumental in locking down Xavier’s defense after the loss to Paul Scruggs. Against Vanderbilt, his 12 points came in the second half and he was one of the looks Xavier gave to slow Scotty Pippen Jr, a mission that left Johnson smiling through a bloody lip. Against St. Bonaventure, he contributed with a season-high 5 assists and his free throws with 6 seconds left confirmed that Xavier’s season and his college basketball career would last a few more days. In the NIT Finals, Johnson scored 7 points on 2-8 shooting, but he made a string of plays that will put him in Xavier lore. The game was tied with 5 minutes remaining and Texas A&M had the ball in the hands of Tyrece Radford. Radford drove to the basket with Johnson harassing him every step of the way and, when he got up to take the shot, found Johnson’s outstretched hand on the ball which resulted in the ball jumping and possession Xavier. On the ensuing possession, Johnson would drive into the left corner and knock down a three that gave Xavier a late lead. At the other end of the field, it was that same well-placed right hand from Johnson that would free the ball from Hassan Diarra and lead to a quick break from Dwon Odom and a 5-point lead from Xavier in the final timeout of the media. It would be Johnson who would come up with a loose ball with 1:12 to go to hold the lead and help set the stage for the Jack Nunge winner.
Nate Johnson made 111 lines for Xavier in 2 seasons. He was a rabid defender and he could put the ball on the ground to get to the basket or set his teammates up when the situation called for it. His time at Xavier could easily have been defined by a pair of injuries that cost him time at the end of each of his seasons at X and, presumably, Xavier’s NCAA Tournament bid. However, they won’t be defined by that because Nate wouldn’t let them be. He didn’t just come out as a good player who was unlucky with injuries. Johnson embodied the fighting spirit that Xavier found on their NIT run, scrapping, diving, putting his body on the line to make the most of his chance to play college basketball. In a game that would go a long way in defining his legacy at X, Nate’s sweater wasn’t falling down as usual. The one thing we’ve learned about Nate Johnson in his two years at Xavier, however, is that he’ll smile, buckle up, and try to find a way to get the job done even when things don’t. not go in his direction. And that’s why he came out champion.