EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP - At 5-foot-8, Martel Johnson often gets overlooked when he walks into a gym with his Atlantic City High School boys basketball teammates.
But whenever the Vikings get in trouble, as they were during Thursday night's state Group IV semifinal, they turn to their shortest starter.
Johnson scored a team-high 13 points and played a nearly flawless game at point guard as Atlantic City rallied to beat Middletown North 60-50 at Egg Harbor Township. The Vikings (24-5) will play Elizabeth (22-6) for the state title at 5 p.m. Sunday at Rutgers University in Piscataway.
Atlantic City outscored Middletown North, the Central Jersey champion, 40-21 during the final 14 minutes.
"This means a lot to our city. It means a lot to our fans," Vikings coach Gene Allen said. "But most of all, it means a lot to our kids. I'm ecstatic for all of them."
Johnson, a senior and three-year starter, made the plays that kept the Vikings close early and helped them get and keep a lead late.
"This is the best game of his career," Allen said. "It seemed every time we needed a basket he either set the play up, made a great decision or made the shot himself. He was the difference."
Atlantic City fell behind 9-0 to an inspired Middletown North (25-6) in the first quarter.
"We couldn't get down on ourselves," Johnson said. "We just had to keep moving. Every team gets runs."
The Vikings struggled to score early. Johnson, who rarely scores, had seven points in the first half, including two mid-range jumpers in the second quarter to keep Atlantic City close.
All of Atlantic City's starters, except for Johnson, are at least 6-2. Two are taller than 6-5. But all season it has been Johnson who has helped the Vikings keep their composure.
"I just wanted to give my team the victory," Johnson said of his Thursday performance. "I was going to do whatever they needed me to do."
A sluggish start
Despite Johnson's play, Atlantic City was sluggish early. The nearly filled EHT gym was hot. It appeared as if the three straight road games the Vikings had played to win the South Jersey title had sapped them of their energy. Nowhere was that better seen than on the foul line, where Atlantic City sank just 11-of-25 attempts (44 percent) for the game.
"I don't think we did a good job in the first half of guarding them 94 feet," Allen said.
Middletown North led 29-20 with 7 minutes, 19 seconds left in the third quarter. Atlantic City center Jahleem Montague then missed a dunk.
That was a play that could have defined a Vikings defeat. Instead, it started a rally.
The 6-8 Montague (eight points, six rebounds) scored in the lane on Atlantic City's next possession to start a 15-2 run that gave the Vikings a 35-31 lead with 3:35 left in the third.
Johnson scored on a floater in the lane during the spurt, and Montague finished the run with another basket in the lane.
"When I miss a dunk, it fires me up to redeem myself and that's what I did," Montague said.
Atlantic City took the lead for good with a 6-0 run in the last 60 seconds of the third quarter.
Dayshawn Reynolds scored after a Kashawn Dunston steal to give the Vikings a 37-36 a minute left in the quarter. The Vikings never trailed again. Johnson then drove and passed to Montague for a basket. Keyshawn Reynolds (12 points, four rebounds) scored in the lane to finish the quarter and give the Vikings a 41-36 lead.
Middletown North behind Jason Huelbig (17 points) made several runs at Atlantic City in the fourth quarter, but the Lions could get no closer than four points in the game's final three minutes.
Atlantic City played stingy man-to-man defense. Even when Middletown North scored, it came on a difficult shot such as the 3-pointer Tim Frawly banked in with 2:11 left.
Atlantic City also wore Middletown North down inside. Johnson was able to penetrate and create shots for his bigger teammates. Vikings forward Ga-briel Chandler, a 6-5 junior, scored six of his 12 points in the fourth quarter.
And on a night when the Vikings struggled from the foul line, Johnson sank 2-of-3 free throws in the final 1:15 to clinch the victory.
"They killed us inside," Middletown North coach Mike Iasparro said. "They rebounded and pounded the ball inside. Our kids battled, but (Atlantic City) is just so big and long and athletic and strong. They played a ton of guys and just wore us down."
The Atlantic City fans and student section rushed the court when the final buzzer sounded.
Elizabeth, from Union County, beat Passaic Tech 66-56 in Thursday's other semifinal.
Atlantic City will make its seventh state final appearance and first since 2006. The Vikings won their lone state title in 2005.
"It feels real good that I'm ending my high school career trying to win a state championship," Johnson said. "It will feel even better if we get the (championship) ring."
Contact Michael McGarry:
Middletown North 13 12 11 14 – 50
Atlantic City 8 12 21 19 – 60
MN-Youncofski 3 2-3 8, Huelbig 6 4-5 17, Frawly 4 2-2 12, Boman 0 1-2 1, Thompson 5 0-0 10, Rhatigan1 0-0 2. Totals-19 9-12 47.
AC-Dunston 1 4-7 6, D. Reynolds 3 0-4 7, Montague 4 0-0 8, Johnson 4 5-7 13, Chandler 6 0-2 12, K. Reynolds 5 2-5 12, Dorn 1 0-0 2. Totals-24 11-25 57.
3-pointers-Huelbig, Frawly (2) MN. D. Reynolds AC.
Records-Middletown North 25-6; Atlantic City 24-5.