Johnson’s double-double guides No. 3 Moon past Penn Hills in Class 5A semifinals
By: Chris Harlan
Tuesday, February 26, 2019 | 11:52 PM
Two years ago, a star basketball player transferred home to Moon, reunited with his childhood friends and led the Tigers’ run to the WPIAL finals.
Now comes the sequel.
Seven months after switching schools, Donovan Johnson is following the same script. The 6-foot-6 junior scored 20 points and grabbed 14 rebounds Tuesday night as third-seeded Moon defeated second-seeded Penn Hills, 59-46, in a WPIAL Class 5A semifinal at North Hills.
Johnson — who drew a Xavier offer last week and whose brother plays for North Carolina — transferred home last summer. He accompanied Our Lady of the Sacred Heart to the WPIAL finals the past two years making this year’s his third straight trip to the championship.
“It’s awesome,” Johnson said. “It’s a great feeling to be back with the kids I grew up with playing basketball. I can’t speak highly enough of them and them just accepting me back. I can’t wait to go back to the Pete.”
Moon (23-1) faces top-seeded Mars in the Class 5A final at 9 p.m. Friday at Petersen Events Center.
The championship appearance is the second in three years for Moon, which won the Class 5A title in 2017 behind then-senior Jarrod Simmons. Like Simmons’ did that year, Johnson’s arrival now has lifted everyone’s expectations.
“He cares about winning and he cares about his teammates,” Moon coach Adam Kaufman said. “One thing I love about him is he’s harder on himself than I’ll ever be on him. He really wants to be great and you can see that.”
Johnson went 3 for 6 from beyond the 3-point arc in the first half Tuesday as Moon built a 16-point halftime lead. All three of his 3s came during a dominant 24-2 run.
But the Tigers also relied on a disruptive defense that forced 23 turnovers and held high-scoring Penn Hills to a season-low 46 points. Penn Hills had averaged almost 72 points per game and only twice was held below 60 all season.
Key was a Tigers’ backcourt that features 6-2 Jioni Smith, 6-foot Connor Ryan and 5-11 Austin Ryan — three seniors who also contributed to the 2017 championship run.
“I think our lack of experience showed,” said Penn Hills coach Dan DeRose, who returned little from last year’s lineup that won the WPIAL Class 6A title. “Their senior leadership, their togetherness clicked a lot better than ours. I’ve got one kid with (playoff) experience. That whole team does.”
Moon is holding opponents to 46.3 points per game, best in the WPIAL.
Kaufman is a defensive-minded coach who has led a few stingy teams in the past, including a tall Montour team that reached the state finals in 2012. This lineup ranks right there with them, Kaufman said, just without that exceptional size.
“These guys are different,” Kaufman said. “They’re a little quicker and a little shiftier. Austin and Connor and Jioni got their hands on so many balls tonight — guys driving to the rim — with just active hands. That’s not something that you coach. That’s just them being good players and making natural plays.”
Connor Ryan added 13 points for Moon, which went 7 for 13 from 3-point range in the first half. Five different Tigers made at least one 3-pointer before half.
Ed Daniels led Penn Hills (20-4) with 13 points — all in the second half — and Tyree Spencer added 12. The Indians went 18 for 43 from the field and 1 for 6 from the arc.
DeRose thought the game’s physical style — and lack of whistles — hurt his team, which likes to work the ball inside.
“I keep getting: ‘We’re letting them play at both ends of the floor,’ and it can’t happen that way,” DeRose said. “Because if one team is just shooting 3s, and all we’re doing is throwing it inside, then it’s a disadvantage if you’re just letting us play.”
Moon led 16-10 after the first quarter and 32-16 at half. The Tigers’ lead peaked at 21 points midway through the third on a 3-pointer by Austin Ryan.
Penn Hills responded with an 11-0 run, upped its pressure and pulled within 10 points late in the third behind Daniels, but couldn’t get any closer.
“With them more than anything, your offense has to help your defense,” Kaufman said. “They score a lot with trapping and pressing and speeding up pace. I thought we did a pretty good job of that for the most part.”
DeRose said he wasn’t surprised to see Moon in the finals. As he motivated his Penn Hills players this season, he often held up Moon as a measuring stick.
“I threw Moon in their face all year, April to summer to fall,” DeRose said. “I thought that was the team to beat this year in 5A, and that was before Johnson transferred.”
Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .