SAVANNAH -- North Hall basketball prides itself on defense -- but so does Johnson of Savannah.
On Saturday, the Atom Smasher's smothering zone one-upped the Trojans, as Johnson ran out to a 56-34 win in the Class AAA semifinals in Savannah.
The defeat knocked North Hall from contention and brought to an end a historic campaign for the Trojans.
"I could not be more proud of a group of guys as we have this season," North Hall coach Benjie Wood said. "They represent everything that's right about athletics and being young men, and they put their heart on the line out there tonight."
The Trojans (28-4) came out ready to battle the Atom Smashers for every inch, trading leads throughout the first quarter as the first eight minutes produced an 11-11 tie. But North Hall suffered a setback in the second quarter when starting forward Adam Kelly went down with an ankle injury. The senior would return to the contest late in the period, but the injury provided a momentum swing that Johnson (24-6) rode to a 7-0 run and a lead it would not release.
"That shell shocked us for six or seven minutes, and we were never really able to recover from that," Wood said.
Once the Atom Smashers pushed ahead their defensive presence kept North Hall from playing catch-up, harrying the Trojans on every outside shot and choking passing lanes inside.
"We have so much length that we can get arms out there and really shrink the size of the floor," Johnson coach Marty Holder said. "We can create difficult match-ups with our zone, and you have to shoot over us, which is tough."
While the Atom Smashers only forced 12 turnovers, most of them led to breakaway points, and Johnson held the Trojans to just 3 of 18 shooting from beyond the 3-point arc -- and 11 of 30 overall.
"They're very long and very athletic; you have to give them credit," Wood said.
Ebo Smith did his best to spark the Trojans' attack, scoring a game-high 21 points, but only Kelly (eight points) and Griffin Olson (five points) added their names to the scoresheet for North Hall.
Greg Mortimer paced Johnson with 20 points, while LSU-bound guard Tim Quarterman added 18 points. Saadiq Muhammad also chipped in with eight points.
Johnson pulled ahead 22-15 at the half and took control in the third quarter via a 10-2 run keyed by Quarterman and Mortimer. North Hall battled to pull within 37-24 on Kelly's two free throws with 47 seconds remaining in the period, but Johnson answered the charge for a 43-27 advantage early in the fourth quarter.
The Atom smashers sank just one field goal in the fourth quarter but managed 14 points at the free throw line to notch a title game berth and halt North Hall's stellar run.
"You can't put into words what these guys mean," Wood said. "They set the record for school wins, won Lanierland, beat a Class AAAAA state finalist, beat Buford at their house. I told them they need to keep their heads held high, because this has been an amazing year."
North Hall started well on Saturday, as Kelly and Smith each scored inside for an early lead, Smith also drained a 3-pointer in the quarter for a 11-7 advantage with 2:10 left in the period. But Johnson came storming back before halftime, as Tim Quarterman, Adrian Bonds and Greg Mortimer each scored in a 7-0 run that gave the Atom Smashers an 18-13 lead with 5:15 left in the second quarter.
"When we tried to attack them with our initial zone, they started back-door cutting us, and we had to change our scheme," Holder said. "We respect North Hall for their ability to compete, and they showed they are a good team."
Johnson turned up its inside game just before the half, holding North Hall to just one rebound over an eight-minute span, and that came with :02 remaining after the Atom Smashers had grabbed a 22-15 advantage and then opted to hold the ball at midcourt -- with just over four minutes left before the interval.
The ploy didn't pay off with points, as Quarterman missed his lay-up attempt, but Johnson still held the upper hand heading into the locker rooms -- an advantage they maintained after the interval.