MAYS LANDING - Atlantic County Institute of Technology boys basketball coach John Miller called a timeout late in the third quarter of the Redhawks' inaugural varsity game Friday and huddled the players around him.
His team was trailing Cape May Tech by 16 points and he saw heads beginning to hang and confidence levels starting to dwindle.
"You guys are doing great!" Miller shouted. "You guys have never played a varsity game before. Great job. Just keep it up."
The Redhawks answered with a fourth-quarter rally that had their fans and cheerleaders screaming before finally suffering a 37-28 loss in the Cape-Atlantic League United Conference game.
When the game ended, Miller shook hands with Cape May Tech coach Bob Ridgway, who had been in a similar situation when that school's basketball program began in the late 1990s.
"Some of my coaching colleagues told me not to take the job because they said I'd never win there," Ridgway said. "I took that to heart and eventually we beat every team in Cape May County. You have to take that approach when you're starting a program and if you keep working hard, it will pay off. I think (ACIT) is going to be very good down the road."
About 100 fans showed up at ACIT's spacious gym, which featured the team's logo at center court. The game featured a festive atmosphere in which students sold red, black and gold braids to wear like scarfs to fans.
The Redhawks cheerleaders tried to rev up the crowd with constant chants throughout, including a stirring rendition of "One, two, three, four, who do you think we're yelling for? Redhawks!"
The team achieved several milestones. Freshman center Marcus Watson, from Pleasantville, scored the first varsity points in program history by swishing a pull-up jumper with three minutes, 13 seconds left in the first quarter.
Less than two minutes later, junior forward Nile White made the first 3-pointer. White, who played for Pleasantville High School last season as a sophomore, led ACIT with 12 points.
The two are also teammates on an AAU team. Watson decided to attend ACIT because he's interested in architecture. White transferred from Pleasantville to study engineering.
"I think we played pretty good," Watson said. "We had some butterflies in the beginning, but we were able to fight back at the end."
ACIT trailed just 18-12 at halftime, but Cape May Tech took control in the third quarter behind senior point guard Conor Mulville and senior center Jake Heminway.
Mullville, who sat out most of the first half with foul trouble, canned a pair of 3-pointers early in the third period. Heminway scored nine of his game-high 16 points in a five-minute span to help the Hawks extend their lead to 33-17.
Cape May Tech sought to milk the clock in the fourth quarter, but had trouble with turnovers. ACIT senior forward Ahmad Shepherd-Sloan scored five points and White went coast to coast with a steal, but the Redhawks couldn't get closer than nine points until the final seconds.
"The kids were just so eager to play this game," Miller said. "They all said they got up at 3 a.m. or 5 a.m. because they were so excited. And I thought they did a great job. We're young and we're raw, but what we lack in experience we make up for with effort, and I can't ask for anything more out of them than that.
"We don't have any senior starters so we're just going to keep getting better, and I'm expecting more kids to come here. I'm looking for us to become a school that is known for its basketball tradition."
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