ATLANTIC CITY - The talented, young players of the St. Augustine Prep boys basketball team receive plenty of publicity.
But on Friday, in the Hermits, biggest game of the season, they turned to a reserve senior for a big basket.
Kevin Kennedy's fourth quarter 3-pointer helped propel the Hermits to a 60-52 win over Atlantic City in a Battle by the Bay game. Atlantic City (9-3) is ranked No. 2 in The Press Elite 11, St. Augustine (13-1) No. 6. Fans packed Atlantic City's spacious gym to watch the contest.
"This means a lot," Kennedy said. "I hit a shot, and it felt great. I really don't get in that much. I just try to help my team win, and that's what I did."
Kennedy's 3-pointer came from the right wing with 4 minutes, 39 seconds left. The Hermits led by two before the shot, but Atlantic City had the momentum. The Vikings had just rallied from a 10-point deficit in the third quarter.
Kennedy swished a 3-pointer to put the Hermits up five. It was the only 3-pointer Kennedy attempted. He didn't hesitate to shoot. The 6-foot guard is a role player for the Hermits.
"It's not easy for a kid to be a senior and have sophomores and freshmen ahead of him," Hermits coach Paul Rodio said. "But when you call (Kennedy's) number, he responds."
Sophomore point guard Sa'eed Nelson (12 points, four assists) followed Kennedy's 3-pointer with a driving layup to give the Hermits a 48-41 lead with 3:47 left.
Those baskets gave the Hermits the room they needed to stave off Atlantic City.
The Vikings cut the lead to three points with two minutes left. But 6-foot-5 freshman Justyn Mutts (13 points, eight rebounds) dunked on a fast break to put the Hermits back up by five. The St. Augustine bench and fans roared with the basket.
Mutts seemed awed by the dunk.
"I don't even know what to say about it," he said with a smile.
St. Augustine's young players came through in a pressurized setting in which the crowd reacted to every basket. Nelson, Mutts and sophomore Mike Vasturia (11 points, eight rebounds) combined for 36 points.
The Battle by the Bay annually features some of the East Coast's top high school basketball teams. Both St. Augustine and Atlantic City are perennial powers and again among the best in South Jersey again this season.
St. Augustine built its lead in the second quarter as Mutts came off the bench to score nine points. Mutts scored all of his points as the Hermits outscored Atlantic City 14-4 in the final 4:23 of the second quarter. His jumper in the lane with 40 seconds left put the Hermits up 29-23 at halftime.
"This is a coming-out party for him," Rodio said of Mutts. "He's on the verge of becoming one of those kind of players."
As they have so many times during the past two seasons, the Vikings increased the defensive pressure and tried to rally.
Isiah Graves sparked the Vikings in the third quarter. He penetrated the St. Augustine defense to score 11 of his 17 points during the second half.
But Atlantic City hurt itself with shaky shooting. The Vikings sank just 12-of-20 foul shots. They were 17-of-59 from the field and 6-of-22 from 3-point range. Atlantic City's only consistent offense came from sophomore Lamar Thomas, who sank 4-of-10 3-pointers and scored a game-high 20.
"They wanted it more," Atlantic City coach Gene Allen said. "They flat-out outplayed us. I knew at some point (poor) foul shooting would come back to haunt us. But give them the credit. They made the plays when necessary."
The victory should boost the confidence of a Hermits team that appears to have enormous potential, not only for the future but also this season. It's easy to forget that Mutts was in the eighth grade last year.
"It's one win in what we hope is long line of wins," Rodio said. "It's a great win for this program."
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Rancocas Valley 59, Sanford 54: Nick Davidson scored 25 points and grabbed eight rebounds to lead Rancocas Valley to victory in this Battle by the Bay game. Niall Carpenter sank 6-of-8 shots and scored 14 points for the winners.
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