ATLANTIC CITY - The Atlantic City and Holy Spirit high school boys basketball teams tested each other's will Wednesday night.
Atlantic City showed the resiliency to make a dramatic comeback.
Holy Spirit showed the strength to withstand it.
Spirit staved off an Atlantic City rally and beat the Vikings 61-55 before a roaring crowd.
The Spartans (18-5) won the Cape-Atlantic League American Division with the victory. Spirit had lost seven straight games to Atlantic City.
"There was a point where I thought the bleachers (where the Atlantic City fans sat) were going to cave in," Spirit coach Jamie Gillespie said. "Our kids could have caved, and we didn't."
Spirit dominated Atlantic City for part of the game. The Spartans' zone defense held Atlantic City to two points in the second quarter. Spirit led by 14 at halftime and by 15 with 1 minute, 45 seconds left in the third quarter.
But Atlantic City increased its defensive intensity and cut the lead to two with 22.2 seconds left in the game.
Spirit forward Junior Saintel sank two foul shots with 12.1 seconds left to clinch the victory. He had made just four of his previous eight free throws before he sank the clinchers.
"I had to take a deep breath," Saintel said. "Those two were big. I wasn't thinking about (the misses). This is a huge win for us and our program."
Spirit forward Jordan Taylor scored nine of his 18 points in the fourth quarter to lead Spirit.
Atlantic City forward Kevin Allen sank a key 3-pointer and scored 10 points in the final eight minutes to bring Atlantic City to the brink of victory.
Fans nearly filled Atlantic City's spacious gym. They roared with each basket in the fourth quarter. Spirit fans chanted "Holy Spirit, Holy Spirit." The Atlantic City fans responded with chants of "defense, defense."
"It was a great atmosphere," Saintel said. "It's always a pleasure to play in this gym. It's always packed."
The teams came into the game tied for the division lead. Atlantic City is No. 8 in The Press Elite 11, while Holy Spirit is No. 6.
The Spartans seemed to take control in the second quarter. Spirit scored the quarter's first 13 points and held Atlantic City without a field goal in the quarter.
Spirit overwhelmed Atlantic City with its speed and length. In the second quarter, Spirit guard John Middleton (11 points) and forward Leon Daniels (18 points) each sank fast-break layups. Saintel (10 points, eight rebounds, two blocks) grabbed an offensive rebound and scored.
"The second quarter hurt us," Vikings coach Gene Allen said. "We never got out of the hole. We had 12 points at halftime. That speaks for itself."
But these two teams know each other well. The rivalry is one of the CAL's best regardless of sport.
Spirit knew Atlantic City would comeback. The Vikings - the two-time defending CAL and state Group IV champion - have won multiple big games with second-half comebacks the past two seasons.
"We told the kids at halftime that we would have to withstand two Atlantic City runs," Gillespie said. "We told the kids when that happens we have to stick together."
Still, when Middleton scored on back-to-back drives down the lane to give Spirit a 37-22 lead with 1:45 left in the third quarter, the lead seemed secure.
Spirit's lead again seemed secure when Taylor sank a 3-pointer with 3:30 left in the game to put the Spartans up 50-39 with 3:30 left in the game.
But the Vikings didn't fade. Allen sank a 3-pointer from the left wing with 2:49 left. Spirit fouled him. Allen made the foul shot for a four-point play to cut the lead to 52-49 with 2:49 left.
Atlantic City stayed close but could never tie or go ahead. The Vikings had the ball down two points with less than 20 seconds left. Senior guard Isiah Graves (14 points) drove the lane and missed.
"We're not used to losing this time of year," Allen said. "I told the kids I was proud of the way they hung in there, but there are no moral victories."
Where most other teams would wilt in the face of an Atlantic City comeback, Spirit didn't. The Spartans made the plays to hold off the Vikings. Taylor tipped in his own miss with two minutes left. Middleton sank two foul shots with 48.2 seconds left.
"Kids stepped up and made plays," Gillespie said. "That's what you have to do to weather a storm like that."
And Saintel's free throws clinched the victory in what was another memorable game in one of South Jersey's best rivalries.
Reporters asked Gillespie after the game how he felt.
"Exhausted," he said with a laugh. "It was a great high school game."
Everybody in the gym probably felt the same way.
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