Johnson Leads O'Connell into Beach Ball Finals

MYRTLE BEACH, SC--As the competition gets tougher with each successive round of the 2002 Beach Ball Classic, so does Brian Johnson. Sunday night, against the Christ the King (NY) Royals, he gave his best performance of the tournament to date in leading the Bishop O'Connell Knights to a 59-47 victory.

In contrast to the first two rounds of the tournament, the O'Connell Knights were unable to distance themselves from their opponent on the scoreboard in the first half. The Knights never trailed, but they couldn't quite pull away.

The Royals refused to back down and, in the process, made it one of the more physical contests of the tournament. Halfway through the first 16-minute period, O'Connell led by only four points at 16-12 due, in part, to the physical nature of the game.

"It was definitely physical," Johnson said after the game, sporting a slightly bleeding, swollen lip. "Number 33 [Brian Williams] is a great player, and so is number 32, [Justin Marshall]. They were really physical. [They played] strong."

"I thought there definitely was a lot of contact, and I thought we handled that well, at times," O'Connell head coach Joe Wooten said. "And then [other times] we let that speed us up too much. In the end, we settled down and ran our offense."

The Royals even went so far as to try to get into the head of the O'Connell junior by openly challenging his abilities as a player--to no avail.

"Early in the game, they were talking about how we were soft or whatever," Johnson said. "[They said] 'Their big man is soft,' so it fired me up to play even harder."

The Laurinburg, NC native scored eight points and grabbed five rebounds before intermission. Knights point guard Erik Smith led all scorers at the break with 11.

The largest lead was nine points, the last at 23-14, before the Royals closed the gap to end the half with O'Connell leading 25-22.

The second half was close for about the first four minutes. Then, with the Knights leading by only five at 33-28, Johnson ignited a 14-2 run with a lay-up and free throw to complete a conventional three-point play after a foul. He finished the game with 21 points (8-13 FG) and 13 rebounds, with 10 rebounds on the defensive end of the court. Teammates Erik Smith and Fred Stanback finished with 19 and 13 points, respectively.

"I didn't want to give them any second chances," Johnson explained. "That's what kills you--the second-chance points."

"I thought he did a great job of doing a lot of the little things well," Wooten said. "He took a charge, he rebounded really well, he did a good job of recognizing double-teams, so I was pleased with his effort.

"He's proven again that he's not just a scorer--he's a team player. I love that about him."

At the half, the Knights were shooting 38 percent (9-24) from the field, and the Royals were shooting 23 percent (7-30). In the second half, the Knights improved to 63 percent (10-16) from the field--and shot 72 percent (13-18) from the free-throw line--while the Royals managed only 45 percent (11-24).

"I think the key is we just kept sticking our nose in there and got stops defensively," Wooten said. "All five guys defended well, and we continued to run a good offense."

With the victory, the O'Connell Knights advance to the finals on Monday night against the winner of the first semifinal, the McQuaid Jesuit Knights, at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center.

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