Johnson key for Vikings in final against Elizabeth

Martel Johnson of Atlantic City is fouled as he drives against Shawnee's Jake Dean in a December game.
Martel Johnson of Atlantic City is fouled as he drives against Shawnee's Jake Dean in a December game. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)

The senior guard is coming off maybe his best showing of the season in a semifinal victory over Middletown North.

Posted: March 11, 2012

Gene Allen figures most teams still playing in the boys' basketball tournament have one thing in common.

"I bet most of them have a senior guard who is a team leader," said Allen, whose Atlantic City team clearly falls into that category. "It's so important at this stage."

On a team with height and depth, 5-foot-8 senior guard Martel Johnson might be the Vikings' most valuable player. He certainly is his coach's choice.

"He's an extension of myself out on the court," said Allen, whose team will face North Jersey power Elizabeth in the Group 4 championship game at 5 p.m. Sunday at Rutgers University. "After three years as our point guard, he knows exactly what I want done out there."

Johnson, coming off perhaps his best performance of the season in a 60-50 victory over Middletown North in Thursday night's state semifinals, will face a major challenge against Elizabeth.

Elizabeth (22-6), which won the North Jersey II sectional as a No. 4 seed and beat Passaic Tech in the state semifinals, starts five guards and uses a nine-man rotation in a fast-paced style fueled by full-court pressure defense.

That means Johnson's ballhandling and decision-making could be the key to Atlantic City's hopes for the second state title in the history of the program.

"I love it," Johnson said after a pep rally at school Friday. "I've been doing it for three years, so I should be able to handle it. They [Elizabeth] are an athletic team and I don't think they have a guy who's over 6-3. We know they are going to come after us."

Allen calls Elizabeth "a typical North Jersey team," in its reliance on full-court pressure defense and transition offense.

"They are very athletic," Allen said. "They aren't big, but they play fast and they pressure you all over the court."

Elizabeth's top player through the tournament has been guard Hakeem Rogers, who scored 25 in the 66-56 semifinal victory over Passaic Tech. The 6-1 junior is averaging 24.5 points in the Minutemen's last four tournament games, including a 36-point performance, with six three-pointers, in the sectional semifinals against Ridge.

Atlantic City (24-5) is a balanced team that has featured a different leading scorer in its last four tournament games. The Vikings rely on 6-3 senior swingman Kashawn Dunston as well as 6-8 junior Jahleem Montague, 6-4 junior Ga-briel Chandler, 6-2 junior Dayshawn Reynolds, and Reynolds' cousin, 6-1 senior Keyshawn Reynolds.

Atlantic City's bench has been a major asset in the tournament, with contributions from 6-1 sophomore Isaiah Graves as well as 6-5 senior Qua'shaun Dorn and 6-5 sophomore Dennis White.

"Most teams play five or six guys," Johnson said. "We play nine or 10, and we feel like by the third quarter, if we're guarding for 94 feet, they're hanging on their shorts."

Johnson made a free throw with 0:07 on the clock to force overtime and then was 3 for 4 from the foul line in the extra session in a 47-44 victory over Lenape in the South Jersey quarterfinals. He led a furious second-half rally and finished with a season-high 13 points in Thursday's victory over Middletown North.

"That was probably his best game," Allen said.

Johnson said he was a typical sophomore point guard, headstrong and resistant to instruction. Two years later, he's the coach on the floor.

"Me and Coach started out rough sophomore year," Johnson said. "I couldn't handle constructive criticism.

"But when you get older, you understand what the coach was trying to do. You understand what he's talking about."


State Group 4 Boys' Final

Atlantic City (24-5) vs. Elizabeth (22-6)

Sunday, 5 p.m. at Rutgers University

Coaches: Atlantic City, Gene Allen; Elizabeth, Chris Balent.

Road to the finals: The No. 5 seed in the South Jersey sectional, Atlantic City beat Absegami, 65-59 (overtime); Lenape, 47-44 (overtime); Eastern, 65-63; Cherry Hill East, 52-41; and Middletown North, 60-50. The fourth seed in the North Jersey II sectional, Elizabeth beat Sayerville, 76-57; Franklin, 77-60; Ridge, 53-51; Bridgewater-Raritan, 51-47; and Passaic Tech, 66-56.

State titles: Atlantic City, one (2005). Elizabeth, nine (1931, 1946, 1952, 1954, 1985, 1988, 1989, 1990 and 1991).

Fast fact: This is Atlantic City's third state final since 2005. That ties the Vikings with Haddonfield (2005, 2006, 2007) for most by a South Jersey team in the last eight seasons.

- Phil Anastasia


Contact staff writer Phil Anastasia at 856-779-3223, panastasia@phillynews.com, or @PhilAnastasia on Twitter. Read his blog, "Jersey Side Sports," at www.philly.com/jerseysidesports

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