WEST NORRITON >> Having just earned the and-one on a fourth quarter layup, DJ Johnson walked over to Norristown’s student section, flexed his arms and bellowed out an emphatic “let’s go.”
It was three years of waiting, frustration, relief and a whole pallet of other things as the Eagles senior roared to his fellow students and they responded with a rising crescendo of noise that only got louder when Johnson went back to the foul line and finished the play. After missing out on the playoffs in 2020 and not having a season at all in 2021, the Town had been waiting for a moment like that to let loose.
Johnson scored 14 of his 16 points after halftime and his defense was again a catalyst as No. 12 Norristown clamped No. 21 Wissahickon 49-34 in the opening round of the District 1 6A tournament Thursday night.
“It was amazing, when you’re in the playoffs in the ‘Town, it’s amazing,” Johnson said. “There was so much energy, our student section was great tonight. Basketball is a staple to this town, it really is, so anytime you can get a win in the district playoffs on your home court, it’s going to be an amazing feeling.”
Norristown, taking the court for the first time since losing to Methacton in the PAC semifinals, got off to a solid start and led 14-5 after a highlight-reel worthy finish by senior Righteous Mitchell on an and-one play with 1:27 left in the first quarter. The visiting Trojans, who were in the thick of the SOL Liberty race right up to their final regular season game, came back strong and closed within a basket with their own highlight finish from senior Morgan Williams at the buzzer.
That basket seemed to get Wiss going, with senior Josh Twersky taking charge during a 9-0 run from the 6:14 to 2:17 mark of the second quarter that put the visitors in front 23-16. Twersky and his tremendous beard would then convert an and-one opportunity of his own, giving the Trojans a 26-18 lead with 1:32 left in the half.
While this year’s team didn’t have a big-time scorer like Matt Compas, Wiss coach Kyle Wilson has a strong appreciation for the type of players his seniors were. Twersky, Wilson, and Phil Dias gave all they had to the program over their four years and represented the program the right way.
“I was watching something on NBATV and they were talking about Udonis Haslem of the Heat and how he’s a ‘culture-carrier’ that teaches young guys what Miami basketball is about and those three guys, they were our culture-carriers,” Wilson said. “They really understand what it means to be a Wissahickon basketball player. I would have loved to see them extend their season but I also couldn’t be happier with what they left for a young group coming back.”
Johnson hadn’t scored in the first half until he contorted a layup in as the final points of the second quarter but the Eagles went to the break trailing 26-20. The senior guard, also the son of head coach Dana “Binky” Johnson, knew any turnaround would have to start on the defensive end.
Fortunately for the ‘Town, that’s DJ Johnson’s forte.
“I love defense, I always have, I love getting steals, when you’re down in games, people say I have a dog mentality and when you’re down in games and get a stop on defense, it starts to spark something,” the senior guard said. “When you’re at home, it helps get the crowd back. It starts everything, you have to be a dog on defense.
“I have a lot of freedom on defense. They know I can get the steal, so it’s nice having that freedom on defense because they know what I’m capable of.
Norristown opened the third quarter with a great motion set offensively that led to senior John DiNolfi knocking down a wide-open corner three. Johnson cranked up his defense and a Trojans team that had really done well to hold onto the ball in the first half was suddenly losing it over and over to fuel an increasingly confident Eagles bunch.
Johnson finished with four steals and the Norristown staff charted him for seven deflections, a category they value heavily. Mitchell, DiNolfi, Myon Kirlew and Gomez all had second half steals and a Wissahickon offense that had been playing pretty well committed 10 turnovers and scored just eight points after the intermission.
“In a game like that, you have to be opportunistic,” Wilson said. “I felt they gave us enough opportunities where we could have closed the door but give credit to them, they came out, grinded and played good defense. The first half, we took care of the ball and had few turnovers then started the third quarter with a couple bad plays and they got life.”
The run started by DiNolfi turned into a lead on Zaki Gomez’s tip-in and eventually a 12-0 streak that built a 32-26 advantage in the Eagles’ favor with 5:12 left in the frame. Johnson isn’t the only good defender on Norristown’s roster, and the senior guard even explained his teammates are the reason he can play the aggressive style of defense he does, but it was him leading the charge on that end Thursday.
“Norristown has always had a special defender and when you can mix a special player who is also a great defender, as a coach, you’re so thankful for that,” Binky Johnson said. “With his senior leadership and uncanny ability to guard one-through-five, when you have a defender like that, you have to give him freedom. Our other players also realize it helps them be better defenders because if he can take something away, then it allows them to cheat a little bit.”
Kyle Wilson and Binky Johnson have known each other for a long time and have great respect for each other as competitors and coaches. Wilson’s also been in the same spot Johnson is in now and even in a loss, could appreciate seeing DJ and Binky’s relationship as father and son, player and coach.
“I did it with my son Chase, who is now on my coaching staff and he’s now doing it through DJ,” Wilson said. “I enjoyed watching him coach his son and his son be a floor leader out there. You don’t get those times back, coaching your son is tough, there’s a spotlight always looking to see if you’re showing favoritism but his son flat-out shows every night he deserves all the accolades that come his way.”
The Eagles will hit the road for a game at No. 5 Haverford in the round of 16 on Tuesday. Whichever team wins secures a state playoff bid with the loser having to try and play their way in, so if the ‘Town wants to keep rolling, that defense will have to travel with it.
His defense had helped win the game, but Johnson’s late three-point play was a way for him to say thank you to Norristown as a whole for the lift the ‘Town gave the team.
“I just wanted to show them some love, let them know we hear y’all,” Johnson said.
NORRISTOWN 49, WISSAHICKON 34
NORRISTOWN 14 6 19 10 – 49
WISSAHICKON 12 14 2 6 – 34
N: Zaki Gomez 2 3-4 8, Righteous Mitchell 1 1-3 3, DJ Johnson 4 8-9 16, Myon Kirlew 2 2-2 6, John DiNolfi 6 2-2 15, Rayshawn Stinson 0 1-2 1. Totals: 15 17-22 49.
W: Josh Twersky 4 3-3 11, Jaylon Williams 3 0-0 7, Morgan Wilson 3 1-1 7, Dominic Vacchiano 1 0-0 2, Earl Stout 2 1-2 5, Phil Dias 1 0-0 2. Totals: 14 4-6 34.
3-pointers: N – DiNolfi, Gomez; W – Williams.