There wasn’t enough bleacher space for everybody, but the droves of high school basketball fans who watched Minnehaha Academy and La Crosse Central on Feb. 1, 2020, got their money’s worth and more.
Roughly 3,000 people paid the price of admission that night and jammed into the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse’s Mitchell Hall for the Wisconsin-Minnesota Border Battle. Some fans stood in corners around the court, while others sat or knelt in front of the bleachers to take in a contest efficiently headlined by elite Minnehaha talents Jalen Suggs and Chet Holmgren.
Their resumes alone made any game they played in a marquee event. Suggs, then a five-star prospect and the No. 2 combo guard in the country, committed to Gonzaga about a month earlier. The 7-foot center Holmgren, then a junior, committed to Gonzaga in April 2021 as the top-rated player in the country.
“There were lines of people waiting to get in,” Minnehaha head coach Spear Johnson said. “I don’t know exactly how many people were there, but it was packed.”
Suggs and Holmgren helped the Redhawks prevail that night, of course. Suggs scored 28 points with six rebounds and three assists, while Holmgren added 18 points in the 74-63 victory.
But a player with a lower profile raised his game to a level on par with his two more opponents celebrated. Central’s Johnny Davis, a three-star prospect already committed to the University of Wisconsin, seized the spotlight and showed just how special he could be, blazing Minnehaha with 42 points on 14 of 30 shooting.
A little more than two years later, much of the basketball world sees Davis as a comparable talent, one who (along with Holmgren) is certain to be a lottery pick in the 2022 NBA Draft on Thursday. The 21-year-old Suggs, a year older than both, went fifth overall to the Orlando Magic last year.
“He was (the best player) that night,” Johnson said of Davis. “I am partial to my guys, but that night he was the best player on the court. I have to give him his kudos.”
It wasn’t the first time Johnson saw Davis outscore his stars.
The Redhawks and Red Raiders met in January 2019 as part of the Midwest Players Classic, and Davis scored 21 points with 19 rebounds in a 59-55 loss. Suggs finished with 18 points on 7 of 21 shooting, and Holmgren had 17.
But that game hardly compares to the 2020 version in which Davis masterfully dominated the Redhawks no matter the adjustments Johnson tried to make. Davis burned Minnehaha with mid-range jump shots and contested layups and electrified the venue with a put-back dunk in the first half. The only real blemish on his stat line by the end was his performance at the foul line, from which he missed six shots out of 20 attempts.
“We couldn’t stop him,” Johnson said of Davis, who also had ten rebounds and four assists in that game. “…After that game, I thought he was a major, major Division I player. You could tell he was going to be an elite Division I player.
“…That night, he was the one who was doing it all. At halftime, we were like, ‘You know what? He’s probably going to have 30 to 40 points. But he’s going to have to get 50 or more to beat us.’ Fortunately, he wasn’t able to do that. It came down to us having more players than they did.”
The explosive performance didn’t surprise those close to Davis, Wisconsin’s Mr. Basketall in 2020. But it provided some extra validation for his father, Mark.
“That’s when I realized that he was going to be able to play in the NBA,” Mark said. “Coming into that game, I was like, ‘Oh my goodness.’ They had Jalen Suggs, who was a top pick in the draft last year. And then there’s Chet, who was the number one player in his class. I am like, ‘Wow, this is going to be a tough game.’ And then Johnny went out there (and dominated). He accepts challenges like that.”
Davis’ push to be at his best against the best started at a young age when his twin brother, Jordan, usually got the best of him in front-yard basketball games. Johnny used those defeats as fuel to improve, and it worked. Davis, Central’s all-time leading scorer, helped the Red Raiders reach the WIAA Division 2 State Tournament three times and averaged more than 20 points as a sophomore, junior and senior.
“Every time he was challenged, he met the challenge and exceeded it,” Central coach Todd Fergot said. “We got used to doing this against the best competition.”
The Badgers got used to it too.
After spending his freshman season as UW’s top reserve, Davis wasted no time establishing himself as one of the best players in the nation this past season. He led the Badgers in scoring (19.7 per game) and rebounds (8.2) and finished second in steals (36) and third in assists (66) en route to winning Big Ten Player of the Year.
Davis scored 25 or more points 10 times over 31 games, with his best performance coming in a January road victory over third-ranked Purdue. Hey scored 37 points, 27 of them in the second half, with 14 rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocked shots. It was the first time a player led his team in all five of those statistical categories in a road win over a top-5 team since Tim Duncan did so in 1997.
“In a way, he reminds me of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryantwhere they’re going to be pissed off and have a reason to outduel who they’re playing against,” Mark said. “Kobe and Michael were the best players on the court, but they felt they had to prove themselves game after game , day after day.
“That’s how Johnny is. He wants to prove he’s the best every time he steps on the court.”
That’s something everyone saw that one night just more than two years ago.
“He ended up almost willing his own team to win,” Johnson said.