Dakari Johnson hasn’t done anything as dramatic as circling the final score and taping it inside of his shoe. He doesn’t stay up late nights watching old tape from the game or even obsess over how different things would’ve been if he’d been able to suit up.
He does, however, remember the game vividly. It's a game that has given Johnson and his teammates at Montverde (Montverde, Fla.), ranked No. 2 in the Super 25, all of the motivation they need headed into Monday's showdown with No. 1 Findlay Prep (Henderson, Nev.) in the Spalding Hoophall Classic at 4 p.m. on ESPNU.
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“It’s hard to forget losing in the national championship game,” said Johnson, a senior center who is committed to Kentucky. “Really hard.”
Last April, the Eagles blew an 18-point lead in the second half of the National High School Invitational championship and fell to the Pilots, 86-83, in overtime.
The loss and the opportunity to claim the coveted No. 1 spot in the Super 25, has given Montverde (21-0) a basketball-sized chip on its shoulder headed into Monday's rematch against the Pilots (22-0).
“My team will be ready,” said Eagles senior point guard Kasey Hill, a Florida signee. “It will show that we’re the best team in the country. The way they beat us last year was embarrassing. We want this one.”
So does Findlay Prep. Bad.
Pilots’ point guard Nigel Williams-Goss isn’t buying the notion that Montverde will have some sort of competitive advantage because they’re still bitter over last year’s loss.
“Kasey was really the only guy from last year who was on that team,” said Williams-Goss, a senior who is signed to Washington. “I mean, I know they’ll be ready, but, as far as being motivated, I think we’re equal there. We want to win a national title. You can’t afford a loss to anyone if that’s your goal.”
Findlay coach Todd Simon likened it to college football, where one loss could cost you the BCS title.
“That’s just the way it is with high school hoops now, fair or not,” Simon said. “The NHSI at the end of the season settles most of it, but coming into that you need to erase all doubt. The best way to do that is to not have any losses.”
It’s a message Williams-Goss has preached to his teammates all year and one he hopes will keep his team motivated for the entire game.
“We’ll have to bring it,” Williams-Goss said. “No letups. They’re talented for sure and some people think that they’re better than us, but this is the game that we want to quiet all that talk. We’ve never lost in the Hoophall, and we’re not trying to start now.”
Johnson said he expects the Pilots to “know” they’re going to win Monday because the Eagles are equally self-assured in that regard.
“We know we’re the number one team, no matter what the rankings say,” Johnson said. “This is just a chance to prove it. We’re all just anxious. I think I may be a little more hype because I wasn’t able to play in the game last year.”
Transfer rules sidelined Johnson for his entire junior season, so he watched in street clothes as Findlay Prep’s American Family Insurance ALL-USA frontcourt tandem of Brandon Ashley, now a freshman at Arizona, and Anthony Bennett, now a freshman at UNLV, dominated the Eagles, combining for 44 points in the win.
“That bothered me because I know things would’ve been different had I been there,” Johnson said. “Brandon was just killing us that game. It’s hard not to think about ‘what if,’ but you just have to move on. This game is how we move on.”
Williams-Goss just wants closure.
He said that, by the game’s end, the debate about whether the Pilots are truly the No. 1 team in the country will, once and for all, be over.
“Everybody can have an opinion right now because we haven’t gone head-to-head,” he said. “But once that final horn sounds, there are no more opinions and there’s no more debate. Whatever the final score says will end all that. We may meet again at the NHSI, but for now this is the game that tells who is the best. I feel good. Let’s see what happens.”
Follow Jason Jordan on Twitter @JayJayUSATODAY.