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Johnson, Vigor get off to hot start, hang on to beat Guntersville and move into state finals

Vigor’s Terrel Johnson squares up for a three-pointer against Guntersville in the Class 5A state semifinals at Legacy Arena in Birmingham Wednesday night. Johnson dropped 33 points on the Wildcats in a 75-70 victory that moved the No. 4 Wolves into a showdown with No. 1 Fairfield Saturday for the state title. (Helen Joyce/Call News)

Vigor’s Terrel Johnson splits defenders on a one-handed shot in the first half against Guntersville Wednesday night in Birmingham. (Helen Joyce/Call News)

 

Vigor’s Terrel Johnson looks for room to drive against Guntersville as Wolves coach Jairus Jackson watches from the sideline Wednesday night in Birmingham. (Helen Joyce/Call News)

 

 

 

By JIMMY WIGFIELD

BIRMINGHAM — Maybe Vigor’s Terrel Johnson spit through keyholes before the game. Maybe he threw his laces into the holes on top of his lime-green sneakers from across the dressing room. Maybe he banked paper cups off the toilet into the trash can.

But one thing is for sure.

“There’s not a shot on the floor he doesn’t like,” Wolves coach Jairus Jackson said after Johnson’s 33 points led No. 4-ranked Vigor into its first state championship game with a 75-70 win over Guntersville Wednesday night in the Class 5A state semifinals at Legacy Arena.

The 6-2 senior forward got the Wolves (28-6) off to an enviable start, scoring 17 of Vigor’s first 22 points in the first period and giving the Wolves a lead they held for all but 50 seconds of the game.

Vigor, which has won eight straight games, will play No. 1-ranked Fairfield (28-2) in the finals Saturday at 10:45 a.m. The Tigers will carry an 18-game winning streak into the showdown after coming from behind in the final moments earlier Wednesday with a remarkable burst of full-court pressure to beat No. 2 Valley 56-50 in the semifinals before a huge, frenzied crowd that nearly filled the lower bowl of the arena.

“They hadn’t played anybody like us,” Fairfield coach Maurice Ford said afterward. And Rams coach Marshon Harper had to admit: “The pressure got to us.”

Jackson, who witnessed the game, doesn’t think that will happen to his team.

“Honestly, they remind me a lot of ourselves,” he said. “They don’t have a 6-7 or 6-8 guy. I like their motor. They didn’t back down. They went and got it. We’re ready for it. … This is the Alabama state tournament. It’s the big dance. The guys know it. The only thing you can do is know you’re human.”

Johnson didn’t seem human at the outset Wednesday night. He opened the first period with a trio of three-pointers, a driving one-handed shot, a running jumper, a 15-footer at the elbow of the lane and two free throws. He had 21 of the Wolves’ 37 points by halftime. He finished 12 of 20 from the field, made 3 of 6 three-pointers and 6 of 12 free throws. He also had eight rebounds, two steals and two blocked shots.

Johnson was relaxed when he took the floor after going to Top Golf in Birmingham with his teammates the night before the game. Then he started holing shots on the court.

“It’s a big moment,” Jackson said. “I know how much pressure they’re under. I didn’t want to come up here and say, ‘Team meeting. We’re going to watch film.’ I wanted them to relax and breathe.”

Vigor barely seemed to be breathing hard — it built as much as a 13-point lead in the third period — but the Wildcats (20-11) stayed close on Jackson Porch’s six 3-pointers and 26 points and gradually plugged Johnson’s geyser.

“Guntersville is very dangerous from three,” Jackson said. (Porch) made a three from the star.”

The Wolves’ man-to-man defense began to assert itself in the third period when it held Guntersville scoreless for three minutes during an 11-0 run. But the Wildcats cut the lead to 63-62 with 3:45 to go and eventually got four Vigor starters, including Johnson, in foul trouble with four fouls each.

Then Johnson turned to the defense he said always wins games.

Johnson’s steal and layup made it 67-62. Devan Whitsett and Aslan Jones — both also playing with four fouls — made a floater in the lane and an open backdoor layup, respectively, to make it 71-64 and finally extinguish Guntersville’s hopes.

“I wake up every day feeling the same,” Johnson said. “It’s defense, defense. We all wake up with defense on our mind.”

The Wolves forced 17 turnovers and outscored the Wildcats 18-13 off them.

“Vigor makes you pay for turnovers,” Guntersville coach Brett Self said.

Jackson said his players excel defensively for a good reason.

“We run drills every day,” he said. “We want to keep the pressure on. We teach them to keep their hands off and keep moving your feet. Defend without fouling. That’s what’s on our board in the locker room right now.”

In the postseason, Vigor has won by 31, 21, 37, 4, 15 and 5 points. It has allowed 49, 54, 44, 65, 48 and 70.

That defense has helped the Wolves to their 13th appearance in the state tournament but their first time in the finals.

“The players deserve it,” Jackson said. “I want them to get the best because they work so hard. I don’t want them to come up short.”

After Vigor fans chanted “We want the ’ship! We want the ’ship!” in the final moments of Wednesday night’s game, Johnson isn’t thinking about coming back to Prichard without a Blue Map.

“We’ve been doubted,” Johnson said. “We lost in the Sweet 16 last year. We weren’t ready. This year, we’re on go.”

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