In the annals of Xavier’s tradition of transfer guards, Nate Johnson had quite the legacy to live up to. Players like Jordan Carwford, Remy Abell, and Malcolm Bernard have come to Xavier from other schools and left an imprint on the program and the hearts of Xavier fans in the process. After two years of torching nets, relentless defense, and one NIT title, Nate Johnson joins those names and many others among the Xavier transfer greats.
Johnson showed what he was all about almost as soon as he stepped onto the floor at Cintas Center. After a strong showing in the Xavier Invitational, he stepped up in overtime against Eastern Kentucky to hit threes on back to back possessions to wrench control of the game away from the Colonels and propel Xavier to victory. He made an efficient showing in the Crosstown Shootout and led the way in Xavier’s historic barrage against Oklahoma, hitting 7 of Xavier’s program record 19 threes that night. In Big East play, he hit 4 threes in a game on 4 occasions and was well on his way to being a contributor to Xavier’s March run before a leg injury saw him end the season on a 2-17 streak and have his season end on February 21st. Johnson had been a huge contributor to Xavier’s early season success, but could only watch like the rest of us as the losses piled up and Xavier lost their last chance to go to the NCAA tournament by losing to Butler in overtime.
With that backdrop, Johnson did not take long to announce his intentions to return for his extra year of eligibility, announcing his intention to take care of “unfinished business” just 6 days after Xavier’s season ended. Johnson put together a solid opening series of games, before serving up a performance that Xavier fans will not soon forget. With Xavier down 3 starters against a highly rated future ACC Tournament champion Virginia Tech squad, Johnson went ahead and put Xavier on his back. He put on a virtuoso performance, going 10-14 from the floor and dropping 30 of Xavier’s 59 points including a game winning three with 25 seconds left to go. In a situation that looked hopeless, Nate stepped up and made the difference for Xavier to secure a vital win. As 2021 prepared to turn to 2022, Johnson would drop a huge shot on Marquette in the Big East opener, hitting a corner three with 25 seconds left to help stave off a second half charge from the Golden Eagles. The month of January would prove to be a tough one for Nate as he battled a slump for most of it, but his 4 second half threes at Creighton on the 29th helped X erase a 17 point halftime deficit and establish a bit of momentum entering February. On February 11, Johnson cashed out a buzzer beating three to end the first half against UConn before taking a nasty fall while battling Tyrese Martin for a rebound with 3:20 left. Once again, he would be out of commission for Xavier down the stretch and once again they would miss him.
Xavier was ranked in the AP Poll and sitting at 17-7 overall and 7-6 in the Big East when Johnson went down. When he returned to the starting lineup on Senior Night against Georgetown, Xavier was 17-12 and any thought of the AP Poll or a stress free Selection Sunday was nothing but a distant memory. Johnson would drop 25 on Pat Ewing’s hapless Hoyas, but Xavier’s loss to Butler in overtime (again) would mean there would be no return to the NCAA Tournament for Johnson. Instead his career would end with an NIT run, and what a run it was. None of Johnson’s lines from the tournament are prose-worthy, but he was an absolute warrior in his final run with the Musketeers. Against Florida, he did put up 16 points and was instrumental in Xavier’s defense locking in after the loss of Paul Scruggs. Against Vanderbilt, all 12 of his points came in the second half and he was one of the looks Xavier threw out to slow down Scotty Pippen Jr, an assignment that left Johnson smiling through a bloody lip. Against St. Bonaventure, he chipped in with a season high 5 assists and his free throws with 6 second left confirmed that Xavier’s season and his college basketball career would last another couple of days. In the NIT Final, Johnson posted 7 points on 2-8 shooting, but he made a series of plays that will put him in Xavier folklore. The game was tied with 5 minutes left and Texas A&M had the ball in the hands of Tyrece Radford. Radford drove to the basket with Johnson hassling him every step of the way and, when he rose to take the shot, found Johnson’s outstretched hand on top of the ball resulting in a jump ball and Xavier possession. On the ensuing possession, Johnson would step into the left corner and knock down a three that staked Xavier to a late lead. On the other end of the floor it was that same well placed right hand from Johnson that would poke the ball free from Hassan Diarra and lead to a Dwon Odom fastbreak and a 5 point Xavier lead at the final media timeout. It would be Johnson who would come up with a loose ball with 1:12 left to preserve the lead and help set the stage for Jack Nunge’s winner.
Nate Johnson made 111 threes for Xavier in 2 seasons. He was a rabid defender and he could put the ball on the floor to get to the basket or set up his teammates when the situation called for it. His time at Xavier could easily have been defined by a pair of injuries that cost him time at the business end of each of his seasons at X and, likely, an NCAA Tournament bid at Xavier. However, they won’t be defined by that because Nate would not let them be. He was not content to just go out as a good player who had bad luck with injuries. Johnson embodied the fighting spirit that Xavier found on their NIT run, scrapping, diving, putting his body on the line to squeeze every last thing he could out of his chance to play college basketball. In a game that will go a long way in defining his legacy at X, Nate’s jumper was not falling like normal. The one thing we learned about Nate Johnson over his two years at Xavier, though, is that he is going smile, buckle down, and try to figure out a way to get the job done even when things aren’t going his way. And that is why he went out a champion.