AJ’s career day for naught

Monday, March 8, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 12:47 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

Big man. Big time. Big plays.

At 6 feet 9 and 265 pounds, Missouri senior Arthur Johnson is often associated with the word “big”.

After Sunday’s last-second loss to Kansas, it didn’t quite fit.

“Huge,” senior Rickey Paulding said. “Everything he did for us tonight he did to the best of his ability. He really steps it up in games like this and he did it tonight. I’m really proud of him.”

Johnson’s 37 points shattered his previous career high of 29, a total he set Feb. 23 against Oklahoma State.

He tightened his grip on his newly claimed title as the school’s all-time rebounding leader, grabbing eight rebounds.

Johnson added a career high-tying four steals and a block for an all-around impressive game.

“That’s all you can ask, just being a senior and the last time we’ll play on the court together,” Paulding said.

When the Jayhawks jumped to a six-point lead after halftime, Johnson single-handedly kept the Tigers within reach.

After finishing the first half with 17 points, Johnson scored the Tigers’ first nine after the break.

He drove to the basket, he pulled-up for jumpers and he posted-up against Kansas’ big men as though he were unstoppable.

Johnson sank 13-of-17 shots from everywhere inside the 3-point line with four or more hands in his face, but the one place that got him was the foul line.

A 58.4-percent free-throw shooter, Johnson bettered his average but only made 11-of-17 foul shots.

After missing three straight free throws, the Tigers fell behind 77-67. Johnson went back to attacking the rim for a basket and netted his next six free throws.

Paulding, who grew up with Johnson in Detroit, said watching his friend respond to missing early free throws was a much better indication of his leadership than a career-high scoring night.

“It was big. A.J.’s a big-time player,” Paulding said. “He kept us in the game with his free throws and just how he played tonight.”

Johnson started the season with every intention of becoming the school’s best big man, but the expectations were one of the few things out of his reach.

“It just made me stronger because so much hype went into the postseason,” Johnson said. “The season didn’t pan out the way we wanted it to, and then we made a little push toward the end, and everybody started talking again. You’ve just got to block all that out. It just made me stronger.”

He started cementing that legacy Wednesday against Texas Tech. With eight rebounds, Johnson passed Doug Smith as Missouri’s rebounding record-holder with 1,047.

In November, Johnson didn’t foresee overcoming his team’s early struggles and cementing his place in school history.

“I’ve just been aggressive and tried to put this team on my back,” Johnson said. “I wanted to lead tonight.

“I’ve been thinking about this game, and I’ve had a lot of time to think about it.”

He started thinking about it with five minutes left in the Tigers’ lackluster 78-62 loss to Nebraska on Feb. 7. He fouled out with five minutes left to play and only 10 points and two rebounds to his credit.

He had plenty of time, too, because he only played 24 minutes, the third-lowest time total he counted this season.

“After we lost at Nebraska, I knew I could have done more,” Johnson said. “I stepped my game up to lead these guys. When I’m on, everybody’s on and we usually win.”

In the Tigers’ double-overtime upset of Oklahoma State, Johnson scored 29 points.

He led the team with 24 against the Red Raiders on Wednesday.

“You see him struggling, how teams have just focused in on him the whole year,” senior Travon Bryant said. “It frustrated him, but his reaction was, ‘I’m not going to let it happen to me. I’m going to go out there and bounce back and work harder.’ When you see him going out there and working hard, it’s a crime if you don’t go out there and do it, too.”

His teammates dubbed him their resident funny man four years ago. He is their emotional leader, the guy they look to for a prompt tongue-lashing and a motivational pat on the rear if they make a mistake.

Fellow senior Josh Kroenke said Johnson’s perseverance this season sounds vaguely familiar.

“I can hear him in the huddles over and over, reiterating everything coach Snyder has said,” Kroenke said. “It’s almost as if coach Snyder’s philosophies are just oozing out of him. He’s been beat over the head with it for four years now, and he’s really grasping everything coach Snyder says and hanging on every word.”

Rarely at a loss for words, Johnson sat shell-shocked at his locker after the disappointing loss.

“We’ve had some great times here, but I don’t really know what to say,” Johnson said.

For the first time, Johnson learned what it felt like to be speechless, but he didn’t have to use a single word to motivate his teammates.

He said everything he needed with his game on the court.

“He’s been terrific,” Missouri coach Quin Snyder. “He’s made it easy to play through him because he’s very unselfish. The collective focus that we had was gone, and we wasted a great effort by A.J.”

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