Johnston breaks freshman assist record

Blake Nash, Staff Reporter

Eastern’s freshman point guard Cornell Johnston is shorter than most players in NCAA Division I basketball at 5’7”.0219_TopCat_KH

That didn’t stop the Johnston from from achieving success on the court throughout high school and his first year of college.

Just last weekend Johnston broke Eastern’s freshman assist record of 115 set by Mike Robinson in 2008. Johnston totaled 11 assists to end Eastern’s road trip last week, giving him 116 assists in his first year of play for the Panthers.

“He’s a great leader and he’s going to be a great leader,” shooting guard Reggie Smith said. “He’s just young and learning, but right now I think he’s ahead of his time.”

Smith entered this season having played point guard last season, but Coach Jay Spoonhour was able to lure Johnston from the St. Louis area, where he was known for his quickness and vision on the court. He was a major scorer for LaDue High School, especially during his junior year when he culminated a season with his 1,000th career point.

“My goal throughout high school was to get as many wins as I could,” Johnston said.  “Whatever came along whether it was steals, rebounds, points or diving on a loose ball, I would do it to win.”

Eastern coach Jay Spoonhour said that his desire to win is what drove him to sign Johnston, whose size scared bigger programs away. Eastern was the only Division I school to offer him a scholarship.

“Size has never been an issue with me in regards to players,” Spoonhour said. “Cornell is a guy who just flat out wins, and gets it done.”

Johnston arrived at Eastern this fall when the roster was full at the guard position. Smith and senior guard Dylan Chatman were returning to the Panthers, and walk-on junior guard Luke Norman also arrived at Eastern.

“It was a tough battle, battling for the one spot,” Johnston said. “There was no guarantee that I would start.”

Johnston became a part of Eastern’s starting lineup for the first game and has remained there since. His father Tyrell attends most of the Panther’s games, and he is the reason Johnston is called “Little T” by his friends and teammates.

“I’ve played for my dad since I was like seven years old,” Johnston said. “He was known as Coach T so that’s how that nickname came along.”

Teammates also call him Uno because he was born at one in the morning.

The night he broke the freshman assists record, Johnston was in Edwardsville as the Panthers battled Southern Illinois-Edwardsville. Several of his family and friends from the St. Louis area were in attendance. He said that he didn’t pay much attention to the record.

“A few people told me about it, but I didn’t look into it or anything,” Johnston said. “I never even thought about, to be honest. I just wanted to go out there and play.”

His ability on the court has also increased the confidence of his teammates, especially Chatman, who said that Johnston can find his teammates anywhere on the court.

“(Johnston) can find us anywhere, though. We just got to move around,” Chatman said. “He can get into the lane whenever he wants to.”

Spoonhour also said that Johnston, who averages 8.5 points per game and 4.5 assists also helps make his teammates better around him.

“He’s got great character,” Spoonhour said. “He helps make everyone better people around him,”

Johnston played youth basketball with current Duke’s freshman center Jahlil Okafor and Arkansas freshman guard Antoine Beard.

Johnson has a jump shot that comes with a quick release, which he uses to shoot the ball before taller opponents can block it.

“I try to get the ball off as quick and as comfortable as I can,” Johnston said. “Practicing is just a matter of getting into the gym and working on it.”

All that determination and hard work has helped Johnston make his mark in the Eastern record books so early in his career.

Blake Nash can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected].