A.L. Johnson uses defense to ignite comeback win in regional

DOTHAN — It proved to be a tale of two halves for A.L. Johnson Friday evening as the Eagles overcame an 11-point first half deficit to win 74-65 over Fruitdale in the first round of the Class 1A South Regional Tournament.

Like about six games on the road this year, we’ve been down by as much as 15 in the fourth quarter. We’ve been able to come back. These guys have been battle tested. Even when we played in the area championship game, we were down 12 against Linden and we were able to come back,” ALJ coach Johnney Ford said of the team’s resiliency. “For some reason, we started out a little bit slow. Maybe it was the change of venue. But once we got back out and settled down and played our brand of physical ball, everything started coming into play.”

The Eagles watched Desmond Hill spark a 15-0 Fruitdale run late in the second quarter to go down by double digits. At the second quarter buzzer, Desmond Mair drained a three to cut hole to 34-26 and give his team some much-needed relief heading into the locker room.

“It gave us a lot of momentum,” Ford said of the shot.

“He taught us all season how to handle adversity,” Mitchell said of Ford before noting that the halftime adjustment called for increased backside help on defense to feed the team’s transition offense.

ALJ turned to its press defense for the entirety of the second half, buoying what would ultimately amount to a 22-point swing as the 11-point first half deficit turned into an 11-point second half lead.

“We thrive off defense. Our defense ignites our offense, so I had to do something to pick them up and get them going. And that’s one way we do it is with our press,” Ford said. “We were sluggish the first half and we were pretty much just walking around.”

While Mair led the way with 16 points in the first half, it was the suddenly lively Mitchell who turned into the Eagle playmaker in the second half. The senior wing had 16 points and seven rebounds in the final16 minutes to anchor a 20-point, eight-rebound night.

Mair finished his night with 21 points and 10 boards to lead all scorers and rebounders.

The Eagles connected on 25 of their 38 free throw attempts in the game, staying in the bonus for most of the second half.

After William Tricksey fouled out for Fruitdale with 7:31 to play in the contest, the Pirates embarked on a run that would trim the comfortable cushion of ALJ to five points with 1:43 left.

Leo Baker pushed his team’s lead back to a preferable margin in the game’s final two minutes as he connected on four free throws down the stretch to ice the win.

“Like I said, that’s what I’ve been preaching to them since day one,” Ford said. “If we can be disciplined and adjust to the atmosphere and overcome adversity, then I knew we had the talent. We just had to gel. We played some stiff competition with our schedule with Dallas County. What people don’t realize is that we held them to their lowest point total all season at 49 points.”

ALJ point guard Charles Edwards noted he and his teammates find motivation in the struggles they had in the second half of the football season, going from a 6-0 start to five-straight losses to cap the campaign.

“That’s what we feed off of,” Edwards said of the team’s losing streak that ended its football campaign. “In football season, we ended the season with five games in a row losing. In basketball, we’ve ended it with five games in a row winning. We feed off that and we’re taking it one game at a time.”

The Eagles, who have beaten Linden and made their way to the regional tournament for the first time since 1999, are now one game away from the state semifinals.

ALJ (13-4) awaits the winner of Chickasaw and Georgiana, a game that is set for 7 p.m. Tuesday night at the Dothan Civic Center.