College Sports

Sac State, UC Davis stoppers do much more amid historic success

Sacramento State’s Cody Demps and UC Davis’ Avery Johnson have built their reputations as lock-down defenders.

But the veteran guards’ timely offensive contributions this season are another reason the Hornets and Aggies are nationally ranked, lead their conferences and are enjoying historic Division I runs.

Neither starter has eye-catching numbers. Demps, a 6-foot-4 junior, is averaging 9.7 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.8 assists in 32.5 minutes. Johnson, a 6-3 senior, averages 5.4 points, 2.7 rebounds and 1.1 steals in 26.7 minutes.

But in important games, they often have risen to the occasion at both ends of the court. Sac State coach Brian Katz calls Demps “sneaky underrated,” and UC Davis coach Jim Les says Johnson is “an unsung hero.”

Demps had a career-high 22 points to lead Sac State past Eastern Washington 90-77 on Jan. 17 to take the Big Sky Conference lead from the Eagles. In a come-from-behind 70-69 win over Montana on Jan. 31, Demps had a team-high 18 points (with Mikh McKinney) and five rebounds to help snap a 15-game losing streak to the Grizzlies.

Johnson, nicknamed “Juice,” scored 11 points, including six in overtime, in the Aggies’ 81-78 overtime win against Cal Poly on Jan. 31 that helped keep UCD atop the Big West Conference. Johnson also made a career-high four three-point shots while scoring 14 points to help the Aggies beat Cal State Northridge 71-61 in the conference opener Jan. 7.

Johnson’s three-point shooting percentage (23 of 55, 41.8 percent) is pretty good for someone who rarely shot from beyond the arc in his first collegiate stop at the University of San Francisco. And before that, he was a slasher and dunker who averaged 17.3 points as a senior at Ocean View High School in Huntington Beach.

“I really had to adapt when I came here,” Johnson said.

Les and his coaching staff spent a lot of time working with Johnson to help him become more versatile on offense.

“During the year he sat out (as a transfer), we really broke down his shot and rebuilt his game from both a physical and mental standpoint,” Les said. “But it’s easy to give someone tips. Juice has put it into practice with the hours and hours he has devoted to improving his game. Now he’s someone that if you leave him alone to double team, he’s going to make you pay.”

Johnson said it helped to be around gifted perimeter players Corey Hawkins, Josh Ritchart and Tyler Les. Entering Tuesday, UCD was No. 1 in Division I in three-point shooting percentage (46.2) and fourth in field-goal percentage (50.3).

“We’re always shooting,” Johnson said. “We’ll do extra shooting before school, after practice, even more in the summertime.”

Unlike Johnson, Demps was a well-rounded offensive player at Pleasant Grove High School, where he averaged 15.6 points and shot 53.3 percent from three-point range (8 of 15).

But with seniors Dylan Garrity and McKinney as Sac State’s primary perimeter threats, Demps picks his spots on offense.

“I have faith in my skills,” Demps said. “If guys are going to focus on stopping Mikh and Dylan, I just try to just step in there and make shots or slip backdoors to get layups. I just try to seize my opportunities when they are there.”

Katz said Demps is a smart player who rarely takes a bad shot.

“When you look at Cody’s numbers, they are actually quite staggering,” Katz said. “He’s shooting 58 percent from the field, 83 percent from the foul line in conference. He’s our second-leading rebounder.”

There are reasons Demps and Johnson are defensive stoppers. They are quick and athletic and have exceptional wing spans for their height. They also have the right mentality.

“Everything starts with Avery,” Les said. “He sets the tone for us on defense with his energy.”

Johnson’s cover ability showed during an early two-game trip in which UCD beat Eastern Illinois 63-61 and Furman 58-55. In the win over Furman, he limited Stephen Croone, the Paladins’ leading scorer, to 15 points, including just two of eight three-pointers.

“Coach Les says what I do is contagious,” Johnson said. “I figure if I bring that energy and help our defense to get going, the offense will take care of itself.”

Demps not only had a strong offensive game against Eastern Washington, he helped contain Tyler Harvey, the NCAA scoring leader at 23.4 points per game. Harvey scored 21 points, but he was limited to 12 shots and missed four of seven three-point attempts. Against Montana, Demps helped limit Jordan Gregory to 11 points. Gregory combined for 38 points in two wins over the Hornets last season.

“I think what makes Cody such a good defender is that he’s tough minded,” Katz said. “He doesn’t get down when someone makes a difficult shot on him.”

Demps’ ability to anticipate and his aptitude for exploiting angles – he is a mechanical engineering major – helps him fight through screens to limit a scorer’s touches and shots.

“There are so many good shooters in our conference that they are going to make tough shots,” Demps said. “You just keep working hard and try to play the percentages.”

Johnson and Demps agreethe exhausting defensive dirty work is easier with their teams enjoying historic seasons.

“It’s neat that people are paying attention more,” Demps said. Johnson added: “It’s nice to hear the compliments, but each week is a new challenge.”

Call The Bee’s Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.