January 24, 2018 9:34:40 AM
TUPELO -- Columbus High School senior Aaron Johnson knew a little about his current basketball team before he received a uniform.
A transfer from Texas, Johnson's cousin is Columbus High point guard Casey Smith, a transfer from West Lowndes High. The two usually spent time together in the summer. For his senior season, the summer bonding time has become year-round.
Not only does Johnson now call Mississippi home, his current basketball team also has its sights set on a Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) Class 6A State championship.
"This season, has been way more fun than I ever imagined," Johnson said. "I really can't tell you how great it has been. I am blessed to be an incredible spot with an incredible group of guys. I have always visited with Casey during the summers. Each year, I got to know more of the guys.
"From day one, this has been family. It could not have gone any better."
While Johnson always has been comfortable with his new teammates, his comfort level on the basketball court keeps increasing.
Johnson's 10-point performance in a 48-34 victory against Tupelo in a Class 6A, Region 2 game will keep Columbus High coach Anthony Carlyle looking for more.
"(Johnson) has always been a great shooter," Carlyle said. "It has taken a little while for that to show through. He has put in a lot of extra time in the gym working on that shot. When you win a championship, you have to have a few extra lifts. A few players have to take their game to a higher level. He can be one of those guys for us."
Two years removed from the program's first state championship, there has been a lot of newness this season for the Falcons. Carlyle is in his first year at the school after leading his last team at Velma Jackson High to a Class 3A State title. RJ DeLoach also transferred from Columbus Christian Academy in Steens to join Smith and Johnson.
"From the first practice, we talked about where we wanted to be at the end of the season," Carlyle said. "It wasn't going to happen overnight. We just asked the guys to come to practice every day and to work hard. We knew would be a different basketball team each week. By the third or fourth week of January, we wanted to be in a different place.
"Right now, we have our offensive system in. We have our defensive system in. We are very close to being the finished product. We are playing really well. The challenge is being able to sustain this for the remainder of the season."
While Mississippi State signee Robert Woodard II will remain the offensive attraction for the Falcons, Carlyle always has believed a state championship team is built on defense.
After its first rotation through the region schedule, Columbus (15-6, 3-0) has allowed an average of 37 points per game to region rivals South Panola, Oxford, and Tupelo.
"It's all about defense," DeLoach said. "The coaches make us excited about playing defense. It's about communication, too. Our communication is great on the defensive end. That is really where we make some special things happen. (Woodard) can get going and just bury you on the offensive end. If we play some championship-type defense and get a lead, we can be hard to beat."
Woodard led the Falcons with 11 points and five rebounds, but he missed two dunks. Denijay Harris and Johnson had 10 points, while Smith had nine.
DeLoach blocked two shots during a 9-2 run in the second quarter. That separation gave the Falcons a 25-16 halftime lead. In typical Columbus fashion, the third quarter was the put-away period, as the Falcons turned up the defensive pressure. Smith, DeLoach, and Harris had critical steals as Columbus extended the lead to 18 points.
"The thing about this team is we can take control of a game in seconds," Johnson said. "It's about the defensive end. It's about getting some easy baskets in transition. We could play a different style and score more points. However, that is not the way we are built or coached."
For Carlyle, it is about continuing to do what his team does best. The three region wins have come by an average margin of 18 points. The challenges will become greater. However, a challenging non-region schedule has helped shape this team.
"On the road, you simply want to find a way to win a basketball game," Carlyle said. "We just have to keep doing this. Don't think too far ahead. Focus on the moment and the task at hand. If we keep trending in the right direction, we'll be fine."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.
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