Towson coach Mike Daniels has a practice of downplaying the accomplishments of the underclassmen in his program. But the play of sophomore guard Keith Jennifer, who is 6-foot-2, and Lafonte "Tay" Johnson, a 5-8 junior, has made that prospect virtually impossible.
So impressive are these non-seniors that each has received an ** early invitation to the July 4-10 Nike All-American Basketball Camp in Indianapolis. The letter from camp director and NBC college basketball analyst George Raveling listed the duo among "America's most elite high school basketball players."
Even Daniels marvels at the two players who have helped to fifth-ranked Towson Catholic (19-4) to five straight victories and wins in 17 of its past 18 outings, including Friday's 86-66 romp over Gibbons.
"A lot of people have compared Keith to Sam Cassell, and that's who I see when I watch him. His mannerisms, his playing style -- they even look alike," said Daniels, referring to the Dunbar graduate and current New Jersey Nets player who was instrumental in helping the Houston Rockets to two NBA titles.
"Just his grit, court awareness, his unwillingness to lose," the 12th-year coach continued. "Most of all though, he just has fun out there, which I consider a great strength."
In Johnson, Daniels sees a combination of Dunbar graduate and former Charlotte Hornets guard Muggsy Bogues (now with Golden State) and former Detroit Piston Isiah Thomas (now an NBC analyst).
"He's in the same mold as both of them," Daniels said. "The attention he's been getting from defenses is unbelievable, yet he's still able to successfully complete fast breaks at an incredible rate that's got to be close to 90 percent."
Jenifer, 15, averages 19 points, four assists and three steals. Johnson, 16, scores 12 points, 10 assists and is a solid rebounder for his size. Each is coming off a terrific summer, shining against some of America's best high school players at some of the country's most prestigious basketball camps.
Jenifer, who spent his pre-high school days in Mount Royal's recreation program, was a summertime member of Charm City's 16-17 traveling squad alongside Dunbar players Tim Lyles and Jamal Brown. Charm City, coached by Joe Connelly, was an overtime runner-up to Riverside, N.Y., in the Bob Gibbons Classic, played at the University of North Carolina.
Johnson, a product of the Bentalou recreation program, was selected among the top 20 players at three different summer camps, including the prestigious Addidas ABCD and NBA camps. He's already been invited back to both New Jersey camps.
"I try to focus on my seniors most of the time, downplaying the notoriety of some of my younger players because it's a long season, and I want them to concentrate in the classroom first," said Daniels, whose Owls won Catholic League championships in 1989, '92 and '93, and were finalists in 1990.
"These two kids, they're young in years," Daniels said, "but they've been in with the best. They've been through the wars. They're battle-tested."
That was evident during last weekend's Charm City Classic, as the Owls won the Southwest bracket. Jenifer was named the bracket's MVP, while Johnson and 6-4 teammate Todd Sykes made the All-Tournament team.
Johnson had 15 points, six rebounds and three each in assists and steals in a 57-52 victory over Strake Jesuit -- Houston's No. 1 team. But it was Jenifer leading the way in a 58-53 come-from-behind win over New York's St. Raymond's. Jenifer scored 11 of his 25 points in the decisive final period, as the Owls downed the nation's 25th-ranked team.
Both players benefited from the inside play of Sykes, who had a combined 22 points and -- against St. Raymond's -- 10 of his 17 rebounds in the second half.
Against Jesuit, Johnson faced one of the country's top seniors in Broderick Hicks. Johnson came out on fire, scoring 10 points in the game's first 16 minutes. Later, he stripped the ball from Hicks en route to scoring another bucket.
"I kind of took it as a personal challenge, playing against Hicks, but not at the expense of my team," said Johnson. "I just wanted to prove a point that whatever it takes to win, that's what I'm willing to do. It's been stressed by my coaches from the first day I walked through the door at Towson Catholic."
In the St. Raymond's game, Jenifer said he took advantage of double-coverage on Johnson and defensive sagging on Sykes, who averages 16 points and 11 rebounds.
"Everybody was focusing on Lafonte like they didn't know I could play," said Jenifer. "With them concentrating on my teammates, it was just my turn to step up."
Down by as many as 18 early on, and by eight entering the fourth period, Jenifer's three-pointer tied the game at 47. He later broke a 49-49 tie by completing a three-point play and the Owls never trailed again.
Daniels says Jenifer and Johnson owe their success to the Owls' three-guard offense, into which the coach rotates 6-1 Steve Johnson and 6-2 Deone Carter, who average 11 and nine points respectively.
"Steve is our workhorse, and Deone is the calming force on the team and by far our best defensive player," Daniels said. "We try to teach balance and teamwork here at Towson Catholic."
Pub Date: 2/08/98