The Atlantic City High School boys basketball team boarded a bus at Pine Belt Arena in Toms River for the ride back to school just after 10:30 p.m. Wednesday.
The Vikings had just rallied from a 19-point, third-quarter deficit to beat Pt. Pleasant Beach 80-73 in double overtime in a Tournament of Champions quarterfinal.
The Atlantic City players discussed the game. They teased coach Gene Allen about being scared in the second half when the Vikings faced what seemed to be an insurmountable deficit.
"I'm just a realist," Allen told them with a laugh.
By the time the bus started heading south on the Garden State Parkway, just about everyone was asleep.
When you're on a remarkable postseason run, you have to sleep sometime.
Atlantic City (29-1) will try to continue its postseason success today when it travels to Monmouth University in West Long Branch to meet St. Joseph-Metuchen (26-4) in a TOC semifinal at 6 p.m. The winner advances to the TOC final at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Sun National Bank Center in Trenton.
The Vikings have reached tonight's game with some of the most thrilling victories ever accomplished by a local team.
Each win has been more dramatic than the previous one.
The Vikings have won with a tenacious man-to-man defense that has forced even the most skilled ball-handlers into turnovers. Atlantic City has been resilient. The Vikings can't seem to shoot until they have to make a shot and then seem to sink every clutch attempt.
"I'm proud of how we come out heart-wise," Atlantic City senior guard Dayshawn Reynolds said. "Every time I think (the team) has given the most it can ever give, we take it up to another level."
The question now is whether the Vikings have the emotional and physical energy to play St. Joseph - the state Non-Public A champion and one of New Jersey's most high profile teams.
After the Pt. Pleasant Beach win, shooting guard Isiah Graves didn't get back to his home in the Inlet section of the city until 12:30 a.m. Thursday morning.
"We're going to have lot of energy (for St. Joe)," Vikings junior guard Isiah Graves said. "Being tired is part of the season. You have to play through it. We're looking forward to a big game."
St. Joe features 7-foot junior center Karl Towns, who has verbally committed to the University of Kentucky. St. Joe beat St. Augustine 80-39 in the South Jersey Non-Public A semifinals.
St. Joe should also be well rested. The second-seeded Hawks received a bye in the TOC. St. Joe hasn't played since it beat St. Peter's Prep 57-47 to win the state title last Saturday.
The third-seeded Vikings say they will be ready to play tonight. The better the competition, the better Atlantic City seems to play.
"Our players have risen to challenges like this," Allen said.
The Vikings reviewed video of St. Joe and worked on shooting during Thursday's practice.
"We realize it took so much effort to beat Pt. Pleasant," Allen said. "But even if we didn't go overtime, at this point I think you just go play. You just kind of figure out what the other team's strengths and weaknesses are."
The TOC features the six teams that won state titles. No local boys team has reached a TOC final since Middle Township in 1993. Tonight's other semifinal tips off at 8 p.m. and matches fifth-seeded and Group II champion Newark Tech against top-seeded and Non-Public B champion Roselle Catholic.
Atlantic City is the only traditional public school left in the four-team field. Newark Tech can draw students from all over Essex County.
"I think it's a great accomplishment for the kids and the coaching staff," Allen said. "When I get a chance to sit on the Boardwalk and go over the season it's something I'll definitely be proud of."
But before Allen sits on the Boardwalk, there is more basketball to be played and at least one more night for Atlantic City players, coaches and fans to savor one of the most riveting stretches of basketball ever produced by a local team.
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