Of all the things she does to contribute to the success of Montini's top-ranked girls basketball team, Malayna Johnson likes blocking shots most of all -- more than scoring, rebounding or playing a key role in the Broncos' suffocating 2-3 match-up zone defense.
"There is something about blocking shots that gives me a burst of energy," said Johnson, a 6-foot-4 senior who blocks four shots per game. "I'm usually the tallest player on the floor so that gives me an advantage. It's all about timing the ball when it is released. I don't want anyone to get to the basket."
Few opponents do. Coach Jason Nichols' team, which will carry a 34-1 record into Friday's Class 3A semifinal against Vernon Hills in Normal, has allowed only 28 points per game in the postseason while overwhelming opponents by an average of 38.4 points per game.
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The Broncos are seeking their fourth state championship in a row and Johnson hopes to become only the third player in state history to play on four state champions. Peoria Manual's Sergio McClain and Marcus Griffin accomplished the feat in 1994-97. And Simeon's Jabari Parker could match them later this month.
"It is really special to me," Johnson said. "I never thought it would be me. I never thought I would make history in basketball."
Johnson didn't begin playing basketball until eighth grade.
"I didn't have a passion for basketball. I liked volleyball and ballet. But my older sister Michala went Downstate as a junior and finished third in 2008. It had an affect on me. It looked like fun to go Downstate. So I gave it a try. As a freshman, I started to get used to it. I like the game in general, the energy it gives me. I get a good feel from it," she said.
Now Malayna is looking forward to playing with her older sister at Wisconsin. She committed to the Badgers last November and Michala soon followed, deciding to transfer from Connecticut.
"It feels like a fresh start, like a home away from home," Malayna said.
But first things first. In his 10th year as Montini's head coach, Nichols has won more games (297) than anyone in state history over a similar period of time. And he admits it would hard to argue that his 2012-13 squad isn't best of all if it manages to win its last two games.
"The team won won in 2011 was very talented. This team has an identical record at this point. But if this team can close it out, it would be hard to argue that this team isn't better," Nichols said. "The 2011 team had stars. This team is a team. This team is good defensively because it is so big.
"These kids are bigger and faster. They are focusing more. Kids don't play two or three sports now. They want to get better and get a college scholarship. It leads to why kids are better at what they do. And good athletes want to come to Montini because it's an attractive school in a good location with good facilities and good programs."
With 6-foot-2 junior Kelly Karlis (7.7 ppg), the team's best defender, and 5-foot-11 sophomore point guard Kelsey Bogdan (3.5 ppg, 5.1 apa, 3.5 steals) on top and Johnson (9.7 ppg, 8.5 rpg), 6-foot-1 junior Kateri Stone (13.5 ppg) and 5-foot-10 junior Sara Ross (6.9 ppg) at the bottom, Montini's 2-3 match-up zone has routinely held opponents well below their season scoring averages.
For example, in claiming the No. 1 ranking in the Chicago area, Montini defeated top-rated Class 4A Whitney Young 51-36 at the McDonald's Shootout on Jan. 20. The Broncos limited Class 4A semifinalist Rolling Meadows to 42 points and Fenwick to 50.
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On Tuesday, Montini crushed Phillips 72-41 in the supersectional at Hinsdale Central. Johnson had 14 points, seven rebounds and three blocks. Karlis scored 15 points.
"Despite our size, we are an average rebounding team," Nichols said. "If we were a great rebounding team, we'd be impossible to score on. Our kids are so big and so long and they play so hard. They make passing and driving lanes so small. Some coaches have said our 2-3 zone is the best defense in the state."
Johnson isn't sure if this is the best of the four teams she has played on but she is certain that this season "is more special because it is my fourth time Downstate. This team is always there for each other. We come together and pick each other up. We're like sisters. We've been together for a long time."
But she admits "I would really be bummed" if her team didn't make history by winning a fourth state title in a row.
"I think about it a lot," she said. "I have two games left in my high school career. Ever since the playoff began, I think that this is finally the end. I have to go hard in the last two games because this could be it.
"But it won't be as hard to get over if we don't win because we got Downstate. It would have been harder to get over if we didn't get Downstate this year. I'm happy we got Downstate. Most kids would kill to be able to do what we have done."
Nichols, who will be 40 on March 28, is a 1991 graduate of Lyons. He was a baseball player at Lewis University. He had a passion for basketball but he wasn't good at it. A friend tipped him off about a job at Trinity. In three years, his teams were 68-22. Then he was fired. He landed at Montini and succeeded the retiring Don Riley in 2003.
After winning 136 games in the last four years, does he feel pressure to make history this weekend?
"Not a lot," Nichols insists. "This is girls basketball. It is a lot different than Simeon going for four state titles in a row. Our kids go about their business and have a social life on weekends. If we lose there is a reason why it didn't happen. We didn't play well. If we play well, we'll be OK."