Will a rainbow pass and an acrobatic shot change the trajectory of the season for the Portland State men’s basketball team?
Isaiah Johnson’s falling buzzer-beater that lifted the Vikings to a 88-87 win on Saturday, Feb. 11 at Northern Arizona certainly will live on in Portland State lore. It capped a wild finish after the Lumberjacks' thought they had won on their own last-second shot.
Johnson's game-winner, from an angle to the right go the key, was the No. 1 play on Saturday on ESPN SportsCenter's Top 10 — on a day with three other remarkable buzzer-beaters on that list.
The first phase of the play required Hunter Woods to make a length-of-the-court inbounds pass. Woods put a lot of air under the ball, giving Johnson a chance to catch the ball above defenders and flick a shot toward the backboard.
Cameron Parker set a screen for Jorell Saterfield, who then set a screen to get Johnson some space to catch and shoot. It worked. Johnson out-jumped two defenders and was falling backwards when he let the 12-foot shot go. As the ball banked off the glass and through the hoop, Johnson was landing on his backside and hand.
“I had to jump back a little bit to get the catch, so I was falling back the whole time,” Johnson said on Monday. “I hit the ground at same time the ball went through. I was really excited, but I landed on my hand. It hurt a lot. I thought it was broken, but it’s fine.”
Jase Coburn said his coaching staff designed the play two summers ago, shortly after he was named Portland State head coach. He had the team practice end-of-game plays after the holiday break in December.
Johnson said the one time the team practiced that particular play, he made the shot.
“Yeah, now we’re two for two,” Coburn said.
Coburn said the focus during the timeout to set up the play was on refocusing after NAU’s go-ahead shot. The coach emphasized that it wasn’t the play design, but the players belief, that made the play work and the moment so exciting.
“Everybody was able to refocus and that says a lot about our team's mental toughness, and about how they can function in adversity, because that was about as adverse as it could get in a basketball game,” Coburn said.
Johnson credited Woods’ looping left-handed pass and the screen from Saterfield for making the play work.
“The pass was amazing. It was in the air for so long it felt like forever I was waiting for the ball to drop in my hands,” Johnson said.
It wasn’t until the team landed in Portland, after the two-hour bus ride from Flagstaff to Phoenix and the flight home, that Johnson learned his shot was Sports Center’s top play of the day.
“I still don't believe it right now,” he said Monday afternoon.
The unlikely play salvaged what would have been a gut-punch loss for the Vikings. PSU led the game by as many 13 points, was up 10 with 2:27 left in the game and by eight with 1:22 on the clock. But the Lumberjacks rallied and appeared to win the game on a transition 3-pointer by Liam Lloyd in the final second.
After a review, officials put 0.4 on the clock.
“I kinda was almost giving up. But then I heard somebody in the crowd or one of my teammates say 'Have faith,’ and that's what really helped me,” Johnson said. “So I started praying and we got the outcome that we wanted.”
It was the second time this season Portland State sunk Northern Arizona on a stunning last-second shot. Back on Jan. 12, Woods drained a transition 3 as time expired for a 75-74 PSU win at Viking Pavilion. On Dec. 22, Saterfield hit a game-winner at the buzzer at California Baptist.
On Monday, Johnson said he was still trying to respond to all the texts and direct messages. He said he heard from elementary school classmates he hadn’t connected with in years.
Johnson’s current teammates have giving him a new nickname, calling him No. 1 in reference to Sports Center’s top play.
“I feel like it’s going to give us a lot of momentum,” Johnson said.
Coburn agreed, saying that all the Vikings feel good about themselves after such a dramatic triumph. The national attention has been nice, too.
“I think the exposure has been really good for our program. The amount of people that have reached out over the last couple of days has been unbelievable,” Coburn said. “We converted an awesome play, probably one of the best players in NCAA history. … I think it speaks volumes about our guys as people, not only as basketball players. There's a lot of people that might have just laid down and said, ‘Hey, you know, the game's over.’ But our guys’ resiliency to be able to refocus and live within that moment was awesome.”
At 11-14, 5-8 in Big Sky Conference games, with five games left in the regular season, the Vikings could use some momentum. They are tied for sixth place in the conference, a game back of Idaho State, which visits Viking Pavilion at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 16. Portland State also hosts Weber State at 7 p.m. Saturday.
A 6-foot-6 sophomore from Torrance, California, Johnson played in 32 games off the bench over two seasons at Oregon State. He’s had some impact moments in his first season with Portland State, averaging 6.4 points and 2.8 rebounds through 26 games (one start). But, until Saturday, most of those have been on the defensive end or hustle plays.
In fact, at least until the shot, the vikings have called him “The eraser” for his ability to clean up problems on the defensive end, including his willingness to take charging fouls.
“I can't say enough great things about Isaiah. He's very coachable. He's very smart. High character. Very tough,” Coburn said.
According to Johnson, Coburn was the first coach to reach out when he put his name into the transfer portal, which didn’t happen until September, shortly before the academic year began.
“I really felt like they valued me. I just felt like (PSU) was the right place to go,” Johnson said. “I wanted to be part of something that was like a family. That was what was important to me, and I felt like they had that here.”