Norristown has been a good team all year, but “good” doesn’t get a team to the District 1-6A championship game. Over the last six weeks, the Eagles have been great. They’ve won 12 of their last 14 games with three straight road wins against three top-5 teams in the district.
The Eagles started the season 5-2 while senior Righteous Mitchell was out with a broken hand. He returned against Upper Perkiomen on Jan. 4 and Norristown went 4-2 over its next six games as the guard got back into the rotation.
Mitchell was thrown into the fire against Methacton on Jan 18. The Eagles lost by 12 to a Warriors team that couldn’t miss and fell to 9-5, but Mitchell scored 16 points and hit a pair of three-pointers.
Since that night, the Eagles are 12-2 and in the District 1 championship game for the first time since 2009. Mitchell is a big reason why.
“It took so much time for him to adjust,” Norristown head coach Binky Johnson said. “It took a lot of mental toughness because coming back – first of all you have to get in shape, and then you have to get back mentally to play the game and then you have to get back into the flow of things. It’s a testament to the whole team because I think we might be the only team in the Final Four that had 13 different starting lineups for 22 games.”
“There were a lot of people out due to COVID, injuries,” Mitchell said of what changed in the second half of the season. “When we’re all back as a team, nobody can stop us. I don’t think nobody can stop us as a team. We’re just great and we can play off each other. We really like each other as a team.”
“It was a rough start without him,” Norristown senior DJ Johnson added. “A lot of teams didn’t know we had another guard that was out. They thought this is their team. Without him, I was more ball-dominant, really. It was definitely easier to stop us when I was ball-dominant looking for shooters like Zaki (Gomez) and John (Dinolfi). With (Mitchell), I can play off the ball more, set picks and get open shots. He drives and he’s a scorer. We’re lucky to have him.”
Mitchell was second on the team in scoring with nine points in the 50-46 quarterfinal win over No. 4 Bensalem last week. Seven of his points came in the final 8:01. He made an acrobatic layup to put Norristown ahead, 33-31, at the third quarter buzzer before going 5-for-6 from the free-throw line in the fourth quarter. He made two foul shots to put the Eagles ahead 47-43 late in the fourth before sealing the win with two more free throws by putting his side ahead, 50-46, with 5.6 seconds left.
“Righteous is a gamer,” Binky Johnson said. “We know it. If Righteous could play games every day he would – he’d be somewhere playing basketball. We have all the confidence in the world in him. He’s one of our best free throw shooters.”
In the semifinal against No. 1 Methacton Tuesday, Mitchell’s full offensive skillset was on display with a game-high 20-point performance. In the first half, he hit two three-pointers – one to give the Eagles a 9-4 lead and another from NBA range to tie the game at 16 – plus a midrange baseline jumper. In the third quarter, he blew past his defender three straight times to get to the rim and extend a 25-22 lead to 31-22. He closed the third by driving to the basket, drawing an extra defender and kicking to Gomez, who buried a three for a 36-24 lead. In the fourth quarter he helped put away the 51-36 win by going 6-for-8 from the free-throw line.
“Righteous has always been a scorer, he just never played defense,” DJ Johnson, who’s played with Mitchell since third grade, joked. “That was his problem – he could always score but never played defense. I was the opposite – I was a great defender but used to every game have zero points. We balanced each other.”
Mitchell is playing this big role without much varsity experience. He played JV during his freshman and sophomore seasons and the Eagles didn’t play due to the pandemic when he was a junior in 2020-21.
“You just have to keep working,” he said of his fast rise over the last six weeks. “Keep working, keep working – your time is going to come.”
“Despite missing half the season with an injury – I’m so proud of him for what he’s done this season,” Binky Johnson said. “He was counted out. He had a broken hand and they said he’d miss the season, then we got good news end of December that there’s a possibility that he could come back and play for us. He was a major piece of the puzzle for the 2022 project.”
Mitchell and the rest of Norristown get to face a fourth straight top-5 seed for the district title – No. 2 Lower Merion. The Eagles will face the defending champs at 6 p.m. Saturday evening at Temple University’s Liacouras Center.
Two other area teams – the Plymouth Whitemarsh girls and Dock Mennonite boys – are competing for district championships Saturday.
The PW girls, the undefeated No. 1 seed in the District 1-6A playoffs, face No. 11 Spring-Ford at Temple at 4 p.m.
The Colonials lost to the Rams in the district final last year, 52-36, when it was played at the higher seed Spring-Ford’s gym.
While PW brings back most of its team from a year ago – seniors Kaitlyn Flanagan, Jordy Thomas and Lainey Allen and juniors Erin Daley and Abby Sharpe – S-F lost Lucy Olsen, the school’s all-time points leader, girls or boys, who is having a successful freshman season at Villanova.
“Rematch of last year,” PW coach Dan Dougherty said after their semifinal win over Pennsbury. “Obviously they’re a different team without Lucy Olsen, but it’s one of those things like when we lost (2018 grad) Taylor O’Brien – then you develop a team of five players and subs. I know (Spring-Ford’s Katie) Tiffan is very good and (Anna) Azzara is very good… They’re very good. It’s kind of like how Pennsbury beat us two years ago, Spring-Ford beat us last year. We will be highly motivated even though we know it’s a different team, it’s still the same name on that jersey. We’ll definitely come in very motivated.”
While PW has most of the same players from a year ago, Allen is playing a bigger role than she did in 2021 and adds a different dynamic on both ends of the floor.
“Last year I was just coming back from being hurt so I didn’t really get that many minutes,” she said, “so I’m just excited to show them what we’ve got. We’re a brand new team this year and I think we can handle them.”
PW reached the final by beating Great Valley, Haverford and Pennsbury. Spring-Ford defeated Central Bucks East, West Chester Rustin, Garnet Valley and Souderton.
The second-ranked Dock Mennonite boys also have a rematch from last year’s championship. They’ll face No. 1 Executive Education in the District 1/11-3A Regional title game at 1:30 p.m. at Easton High School Saturday.
Last year, the Pioneers lost 67-44 in the final.
Dock enters the title game after a wild double-overtime semifinal win. Nathan Lapp scored 21 points and Tohmir Johnson hit a game-tying three at the end of the first overtime to help beat Notre Dame Green Pond, 78-75
Executive Education reached the final with a 65-27 win over Palmerton.