PISCATAWAY, N.J. - As much as Gene Allen loves Martel Johnson's company, the Atlantic City coach hates when his point guard is sitting next to him on the bench.
He wants his floor general on the floor. He wants his captain to direct the Vikings' offense, ignite their defense and steady the ship through the turbulent waters of the state tournament.
The ship was sinking on Sunday.
And Johnson was anchored on the Atlantic City sideline with two fouls.
"It was tough [to keep Johnson on the bench]," Allen said after Atlantic City rallied for a 53-47 victory over Elizabeth in the Group 4 state championship game Sunday at Rutgers University. "But that's my philosophy. I've been doing it all along."
Atlantic City was a different team in the second half of the biggest game of the season for a lot of reasons.
For one thing, the Vikings always are a different team in the second half. For another, juniors Jahleem Montague and Dayshawn Reynolds made a series of big plays that helped turn the ragged but intense game in the South Jersey champions' favor.
But the biggest difference was the smallest player on the floor.
"He steadies us," Allen said of Johnson. "When he's not in the game, we have other guys outside their roles. We couldn't seem to settle down without him."
The 5-foot-8 Johnson is a three-year starter. By his own admission, he clashed with his coach during his sophomore year because of his inability to handle "constructive criticism."
Last season, Johnson and Allen and the rest of the Vikings suffered through a 14-12 season that was one of the most mediocre in the history of the proud program.
But a lot happens in the course of a three-year career, especially between a talented point guard and a demanding head coach. Ultimately, the team's success often hinges on the strength of that relationship.
That might be the biggest key to Atlantic City's remarkable run to its second state title, both since 2005, both under Allen. The Vikings have height and athleticism. They play defense. They wear teams down with a 10-man rotation.
But all that works in the heightened atmosphere of the state tournament because they have a point guard who "is a coach on the floor," according to the actual coach.
That was clear again Sunday. Johnson's impact was further evidence of the importance of an experienced lead guard in tournament play, especially late in close games.
Johnson scored just four points. But his ballhandling, decision-making and defense might have been the biggest difference in the second half, when the Vikings outscored the Minutemen by 30-21.
"It was frustrating," Johnson said of sitting out in the first half. "But I knew I would get in there in the third quarter and that things would work out."
Allen didn't think there was any mystery to the Vikings' rally. His team is deep, tall and in great condition, the coach said.
Plus, Allen said while pointing at Johnson, "he was in the game."
Contact staff writer Phil Anastasia at 856-779-3223, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @PhilAnastasia on Twitter. Read his blog, "Jersey Side Sports," at www.philly.com/jerseysidesports