WEST NORRITON >> When DJ Johnson fouled out of the District 1 championship game against Lower Merion Saturday, it forced Norristown to change its gameplan. Without their point guard, the Eagles got within four points before struggling down the stretch of an 11-point loss.
It was the first time Johnson fouled out since the second game of the season on Dec. 10.
It may have been a blessing in disguise for the state playoffs. (1-2) Norristown spent some practice time with Johnson off the floor before their PIAA-6A opener Wednesday night.
When the senior went down with a lower body injury in the third quarter, the Eagles didn’t panic. They maintained a comfortable advantage and cruised to a 64-50 win over (3-5) Hempfield at Norristown Area High School.
“The takeaway value from Saturday night,” Norristown coach Binky Johnson said, “was the fact that when your fearless leader is down, they weren’t shocked by it this time. We went through sets (Tuesday) – offensive sets and defensive sets without DJ because if that happens again we have to be ready.”
“DJ is our defensive leader,” Norristown senior John Dinolfi added. “Everybody knows that. Defensively, we really have to lock in more because offensively we’re a good scoring team, but defensively he’s our anchor. We need him defensively. We just had to lock in.”
DJ Johnson left the game with a 40-25 lead with 2:43 left in the third quarter. Less than two minutes later, the Black Knights trimmed their deficit to eight, 42-34.
Dinolfi answered with a three-pointer to get the lead back to 11 and answered to two Hempfield layups with one of his own to send the Eagles to the fourth ahead, 47-38.
“It was a momentum shifter,” Dinolfi said of his shot from beyond the arc. “They’re a great team. Really, we had to lock in on defense. There was a possession where we were playing defense for like two straight minutes. We just had to lock in, but that shot – that was a big shot. It felt good out of my hand. Zaki (Gomez) got me the ball and they believe in me.”
Righteous Mitchell opened the fourth quarter with a three-point play to get the lead back to 12, 50-38, but Hempfield’s Cole Overbaugh made back-to-back baskets to get it back to an eight-point game, 50-42, with under six minutes left.
Gomez and Dinolfi made back-to-back layups to get the lead back to 12, but Miguel Pena and Overbaugh answered with their own buckets to make it 54-46 with 3:48 remaining.
Gomez started a 7-0 game-sealing run for Norristown with a three. He added two free throws and Dinolfi did the same to make it 61-46 with 1:53 to play. Mitchell went 3-for-4 from the line down the stretch – making Norristown 8-for-9 from the charity stripe in the quarter and 16-for-19 in the game – to close out the 64-50 win.
“As the games go by, yeah we got better at foul shots,” Mitchell said. “Some games it was bad, real bad, but we’re improving our foul shots.”
Dinolfi scored the final five points of the third quarter before he, Mitchell and Gomez combined for all 17 Norristown points in the fourth.
“Our senior class,” Binky Johnson said, “when we talk about leadership – they’re the epitome of leadership and they’re the epitome of cohesiveness and they’re the epitome of ‘why we play fuels how we play.’ One of our 12 pillars is ‘why we play fuels how we play.’ Why we play is for who’s around us – who’s in that locker room, who believed from Day 1 that we’d be here playing March 9th. Everyone plays for each other and it’s obvious.”
When DJ Johnson, who’s expected to be fine for Saturday’s second round matchup with (7-2) North Hill, exited the game, it meant more minutes for Roddy Gaymon. The junior guard has dealt with multiple injuries this season, but was ready when called upon. He gave the Eagles important minutes Wednesday and added four points.
“(Gaymon) never gave up,” Binky Johnson said. “We said stay ready so you don’t have to get ready and Roddy Gaymon did that tonight.”
Gomez hit a three-pointer on the first possession of the game and Norristown led the entire way. DJ Johnson got off to a fast start with six points in the first quarter to help build a 14-8 lead after eight minutes.
The Eagles took full control in the second quarter, starting the frame with a 13-1 run to take a 27-9 advantage. Mitchell had five points in the quarter while Johnson and Dinolfi each added four to send Norristown to the locker room with a 31-18 lead.
Dinolfi lead Norristown with 16 points. Mitchell added 15 while Johnson and Gomez each had 12.
Pena scored a game-high 19 points for Hempfield and Overbaugh added 18.
“They can’t pay you enough,” an excited Norristown fan shouted to Binky Johnson after Norristown’s win.
“They’re not paying me at all,” Johnson answered.
Johnson said he and his coaching staff haven’t been getting compensated since the end of the regular season on Feb. 4. Since then, the Eagles have played in the Pioneer Athletic Conference playoffs, District 1-6A playoffs and now PIAA-6A state playoffs.
“We’ve been fighting this for years,” he said. “They don’t do postseason.
“I want to thank my coaches for diligently putting together hard work and dedication, over 20 hours a week, and not being compensated for postseason play at all. That comes from the bottom of my heart and I really admire them for that. I have one coach coming from 45 minutes away with the gas prices that they are. I’m really thankful to have dedicated people that are dedicated for the boys. It’s not about anything else.”
Norristown 64, Hempfield 50
Hempfield 8 10 20 12 – 50
Norristown 14 17 16 17 – 64
H: Pena 7 2-2 19, Overbaugh 7 4-8 18,Hester 0 0-0 0, Wolfe 1 0-0 2, Troyer 2 2-2 6, Dennis 0 0-0 0, Hester 0 0-0 0, Calabretta 1 0-0 2, Deeg 0 0-0 0, Ricker 1 0-0 2, Harelson 0 0-0 0, Lawrence 0 0-0 0. Total 19 9-13 50.
N: Gomez 4 2-2 12, Johnson 6 0-0 12, Mitchell 5 4-5 15, Williams 0 0-0 0, Dinolfi 4 7-8 16, Kirlew 1 3-4 5, Gaymon 2 0-0 4, Wise 0 0-0 0, Mobley 0 0-0 0, Green 0 0-0 0, Gordon 0 0-0 0, DiMichele 0 0-0 0. Total 22 16-19 64.
3-point goals: H: Pena 3. N: Gomez 2, Mitchell, Dinolfi.