RAHWAY, NJ -- The unusual early-morning start was tough.  Plainfield High School’s zone defense was even tougher. And, suddenly, the Arthur L. Johnson girls’ basketball team had a problem on its hands.

“The (early) start time was definitely a factor,’’ said Johnson senior Meaghan Gallagher, “we’re not used to playing that early.  We wanted to penetrate their zone, and run some offensive sets against it, but nothing was working. We couldn’t hit a shot.”

But, thanks to a late first-half surge, the Crusaders were able to rally and post a 54-42 victory over Plainfield to capture the Mountain Division championship of the Union County Conference.

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Johnson (10-12, 8-2) finished tied with Rahway for first place in the division, but wins the title based on its victory over the Indians earlier in the season. Plainfield is 2-18, 1-10 in the conference.

The game started at 9 a.m. and was played at Rahway High School.  It was the makeup of a game that originally had been scheduled for Jan. 26 in Plainfield.  That game had been postponed after an earlier match-up in Clark ended in controversy when an allegedly offensive puppet was found in a classroom.

Johnson trailed, 17-13, with 3:46 left in the first half when junior Kristina Palella hit a free throw and followed with a driving layup off her own steal at midcourt. Gallagher’s jumper with 2:28 left and Danni Hartzler’s three-pointer 20 seconds later closed an 8-0 run that propelled the Crusaders (10-12, 8-2) to a 26-19 halftime edge.

“(Palella’s) steal changed things around,” said first-year Johnson coach Joe Marino. “Plainfield came out and played a good, hard game. They were very effective in what they were doing.”

Said Gallagher: “That loosened things up.  We were really tense before that.”

That tenseness was reflected in Johnson going over six minutes without a field goal in the first half, from Gallagher’s layup midway through the first period to Palella’s bucket on a follow with 5:48 left in the half.

“It looked like both teams were a little tense at the start,’’ Marino said. “Their zone affected us, but our team took it as a challenge. Our seniors knew they had to step up. Meaghan, Jess (Gannon) and Sabrina (Parin), all three of them knew what they had to do and did it.

“We knew the first three or four minutes of the third quarter would set the tone for the rest of the game.’’

But Plainfield refused to fold after the break, and finished the third quarter with a 10-2 run to close the Johnson lead to 33-31. Jailan White and Seanlynn Woods had two baskets apiece in the run.

“We played tough,” Plainfield coach Keshon Bennett said. “We played tough. That’s all you can really ask for. Everybody was tired and exhausted at the end of the game; and that’s basketball. I was happy with that.  They gave 110 percent.”

Foul trouble began to plague the Crusaders, as Palella picked up her fourth foul a minute into the fourth quarter before fouling out two minutes later. Amy Wysocki was also whistled for her third foul early in the second half.

“Our bench came up big for us,’’ Marino said.  “Kellie Bonaccorso, Shelby Lyons, Hanna Brogan; they all gave us a lift.  We’ve had some injuries this year and we’ve needed our depth.’’

Leading 38-35 with 5:13 to play, Johnson reeled off nine straight points to ice the victory. Gallagher had six points in the spree, starting it with an inside bucket off a crisp pass from Hartzler that turned into a three-point play. Parin added two free throws and Gannon one to round out the run.

Gallagher finished with a game-high 19 points and Palella added 13. Johnson enjoyed a huge advantage at the foul line. The Crusaders hit 18-32 from the line compared to 2-10 for Plainfield. The Cardinals also missed the front end of five one-and-one situations.

“This is the first time we’ve won the division in (about 10 years),’’ Marino said. “We should be proud of this. I’m happy for our seniors, and I’m happy that we have a lot of (underclassmen) who can hang their hats on this for next season.’’

Plainfield’s season ended with this game, but Bennett said with seven freshmen on his bench he’s also looking ahead to a promising future.

“We’re a young team,” he said. “Everyone that was there today is back next year.  They’re going to need a good conditioning spring and a good summer training. They have to get bigger, faster, stronger.  In order to build a program that has to happen.”

“I think the Clark coach did an excellent job with his team,” Bennett continued. “They work hard and play tough for 32 minutes.”

On Monday, No. 15 seed Johnson will travel to play No. 2 seeded Rumson-Fair Haven HS at 5:00 p.m. in the first round of the NJSIAA Central, Group 2 state playoffs.

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