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How Tragedy, Prayer and Success Connected Keyontae Johnson and Oscar Tshiebwe

Wildcats Today on FanNation logo Wildcats Today on FanNation 3/19/2023 Hunter Shelton
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GREENSBORO, N.C. — On Dec. 12, 2020, then-Florida forward Keyontae Johnson fell face-first on the court at the Tucker Center in Tallahassee, Fla. in a game against Florida State. 

He was stretchered back to the locker room, then taken to Tallahassee Memorial hospital, where he spent three days in a medically-induced coma. He eventually returned to Gainesville, but returning to the court wasn't an immediate option. 

Johnson was first diagnosed with acute myocarditis (heart inflammation), but later said that it was a condition known as "Athlete's Heart," which is an increase in cardiac mass due to systematic training that can lead to sudden death. 

It was an emotional reminder about how fragile life can be in the sports world — an area that is so often used as a gateway and escape from the tear-jerking issues that surround the lives of many. 

Florida's players were given the chance to not play the rest of the game that day, but instead opted to battle through the thoughts of potentially losing one of their brothers, eventually losing 83-71, though the result was of the least importance. 

Johnson never really played for the Gators again, only suiting up one more time on Senior Night last season, as he was given a massive round of applause from the Florida faithful as he kissed the UF logo at mid-court. 

Many thought that that would be the end of Johnson's career, but he wasn't one of those people. Neither was Kentucky forward Oscar Tshiebwe. 

Acquaintances since playing in AAU circuits and in high school against each other, the two weren't overly close. That didn't stop Tshiebwe from getting into contact with Johnson when he heard about the incident.

"I was praying for him and reached out to him, I said 'let's keep praying, let's keep praying, let's stay together,'" the UK big man told reporters on Saturday. "They say the real love is when someone's going through a lot. That's when you can show them real love." 

That real love hit home with Johnson, subsequently budding a friendship that has positively impacted both men. 

"We've just been connected since then," Johnson said. "We just always talk to each other. We always praise and congratulate each other. He's like a brother to me."

As Tshiebwe made the jump from West Virginia to Kentucky, Johnson remained unable to play. The former became the first unanimous National Player of the Year in UK history, while the latter sat wondering if he'd even have the opportunity to properly finish his career as a collegiate basketball player. 

The two kept contact, and Tshiebwe — as he always does — kept praying. Prayer and belief comes at the forefront of dissecting the larger-than-life figure that took Lexington by storm, so his while his words may seem overly amplified, they come from nowhere but the heart:

"I told him 'stay strong, God is gonna bring you back better than before.'"

Johnson stayed strong, and eventually got cleared to return to the court. He transferred to Kansas State, a move that has helped elevate his game to a new level. In 33 games, he's averaging 17.7 points and 7.1 rebounds a night. 

"I thank God for him. God has answered prayer," Tshiebwe said with a smile. "Look at him now, he's doing amazing things."

Now, Tshiebwe will have to try and halt those amazing things on the court, as he and Kentucky will square off against Johnson and Kansas State in the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament on Sunday afternoon in Greensboro. 

UK fought off Providence in the first round, partially thanks to 25 rebounds from Tshiebwe, a single-game postseason program record. K-State drove past Montana State, as Johnson scored 18 points while adding eight boards and three assists. He's scored 10 or more points in all but one game this season. 

Sunday won't be the first time that Johnson and Tshiebwe will have shared a court in college, though. The aforementioned ceremonial Senior Night in Gainesville on March 5, 2022, featured a game against Kentucky.

"It's gonna be a great experience," Johnson said. "He was on the court last year with my Senior Night that I didn't play in. Just playing against the National Player of the Year is a great feeling, it's a big stage, it's gonna bring back old memories."

Going up against Tshiebwe will serve as a reminder of how far Johnson has come since his career — and life — almost ended over two years ago. He's coming for more than a round of applause this time, too.

"We're friends off the court, but on the court it's all business. Me and my guys are trying to get to the Sweet 16, trying to go to New York," Johnson said. "I just try to stay consistent. Coach (Jerome) Tang always preach and my parents — 'big-time players show up for big-time games.'

Tipoff for the big-time game featuring two big-time players is set for 2:40 p.m. EST inside Greensboro Coliseum.

The first win is out of the way for UK, but nerves were never there to begin with. More HERE.

Kentucky will play Kansas State in the Round of 32. More HERE.

Everything John Calipari said after Kentucky's win HERE.

How staying loose helped Kentucky get the NCAA Tournament monkey off its back HERE.

More on Kentucky-Providence HERE.

Want the latest on national football and basketball recruiting, including Cats targets? Head over to SI All-American for the latest news, blogs, and updates about the nation's best prospects.

Sports Illustrated also offers insight, information and up to the minute details for gamblers. Check it out here.


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