Rapid Redemption

College of Charleston's Nori Johnson races downcourt after getting a steal on his way to a 23-point game to lead the Cougars past the UNC-Wilmington Seahawks 75-70 at TD Arena Wednesday, January 22, 2014. Wade Spees/Staff

College of Charleston senior Nori Johnson got his first start of the season Sunday against Towson.

How did the former Greer High School star respond? With perhaps his worst shooting performance of the season, missing all seven shots he took in a 72-57 loss to the Tigers.

But Johnson more than made up for it Wednesday night against UNC Wilmington with one of the best games of his career.

Johnson scored 23 points, tying a career high with 7 3-pointers, to lead the Cougars past UNC Wilmington, 75-70, before a crowd of 2,748 at TD Arena.

After scoring in double figures in four of the last six games, Johnson was rewarded by College of Charleston coach Doug Wojcik with his first start in more than two years against the Tigers. Despite his poor shooting, Wojcik said he didn't hesitate to put Johnson back into the starting lineup against the Seahawks.

"You play the game at both ends of the floor, and Nori is a very good defender," Wojcik said. "He can do other things to help us win games. He's a shooter. He's going to have off nights. As long as he does the other things to help us, then he's going to play."

Johnson missed just two shots Wednesday night, connecting on his first six 3-point attempts on his way to an 18-point first-half performance. Since the Christmas break, Johnson is 29 of 57 from 3-point range, including 20 of 38 in conference games. Few teams have dared to play a zone defense with Johnson on the floor.

"I didn't lose any confidence after Sunday's game," said Johnson, who notched his third career 20-point effort. "I didn't get into much of a rhythm against Towson."

No one was more surprised than Johnson that the Seahawks started the game in a 2-3 zone. Johnson made them pay, hitting three 3-pointers in the first four Cougar possessions.

"I was shocked they played zone," Johnson said. "I expected them to play man. Since I've been shooting the ball well, most teams have been playing man and not helping off of me. I haven't had many open looks. I got into an early rhythm. I was feeling it."

UNC Wilmington coach Buzz Peterson said he knew all about Johnson, but didn't expect that kind of performance. He quickly switched to man-to-man defense, but by then the damage had been done.

"Nori Johnson is no mystery," Peterson said. "I knew what he was capable of doing. Nori hit some big shots tonight. He was kind of their X-factor."

The Cougars, who improved to 11-9 overall and 3-2 in the Colonial Athletic Association, relied heavily on their outside shooting, going 10 of 19 from beyond the 3-point line.

The Cougars rode their outside shooting to a 30-23 hafltime lead.

The Seahawks (6-15, 0-6) didn't quit. Cedrick Williams, who led the Seahawks with 22 points, and Chris Dixon, who added 21 points, chipped away at the Cougars' advantage.

UNCW eventually tied the game at 52-52 on Williams' two free throws with 6:34 to play.

But Anthony Thomas, who scored nine second-half points, hit a driving layup and Johnson knocked down a 3-pointer in transition to push the Cougars' advantage back to 57-52 with 6:54 to play.

"I thought Anthony Thomas kind of took over late in the second half and hit some big shots," Wojcik said.

The Seahawks pulled to within five points twice more, but could never get any closer.

UNCW guard Ben Eblen, who played his freshman season at Wando High School, had nine points in the loss. Eblen's parents, Milt and Joyce, still live on the Isle of Palms.

"I come back home in the summers and I know Anthony (Stitt) and Nori (Johnson) pretty well," Eblen said. "It was fun to be back in Charleston, but I can't let those guys think they got the best of me. We're going to get them when they come back to our place."

The Cougars will hit the road to face James Madison at 2 p.m. Saturday.