EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Isiah Graves left the court with tears in his eyes Wednesday night.
“All this crying is coming from joy,” the Atlantic City High School guard said.
Graves and the rest of the Vikings boys basketball team had just averted tears of sadness with one of the grittiest efforts in Atlantic City basketball history.
The Vikings, down by 14 points late in the first half, rallied in the second half behind a tenacious man-to-man defense to beat East Brunswick 51-49 in the state Group IV semifinal at Egg Harbor Township High School.
Atlantic City held East Brunswick to just one basket and four points for 14 minutes, 37 seconds from late in the second quarter to the middle of the fourth. Graves scored 10 of his game-high 17 points in the fourth quarter. Atlantic City center Jahleem Montague also starred in the fourth quarter with six points and a critical steal.
Graves gave Atlantic City the lead for good on a driving layup with 1 minute, 55 seconds left in the game.
“I just wanted to win,” Graves said. “My emotions are going crazy. Everybody had their heads down. We were down the whole
game. I wanted the game bad.”
Atlantic City (28-1) will play Linden (22-7) for the state title on Sunday at Rutgers University at a time to be determined. Atlantic City will be trying to win its second straight and third overall state championship in the program’s history.
“We want to be state champions,” Graves said. “That’s all we talked about since the beginning of the season. We’re back where we want to be.”
Fans nearly packed EHT’s gym on a rainy, windy night to see one of the most anticipated of the state semifinal games. The contest did not disappoint with five fourth-quarter lead changes. The crowd roared with each basket. The Atlantic City fans chanted “defense, defense.”
The Vikings overcame adversity in the fourth quarter. Standout guard Dayshawn Reynolds left the game with a back injury when he fell to the floor driving to the basket. His mother, Seleema, overcome by emotion, fainted in the crowd and the game was briefly delayed. Reynolds returned to the game with a little more than four minutes left, and his mother also recovered and was fine afterward.
With Reynolds on the bench, Graves stepped forward.
He sank two 3-pointers and scored Atlantic City’s first eight points of the fourth quarter. His driving layup with 6:15 left gave Atlantic City its first lead — 38-37.
“It seemed like every shot I took felt good,” Graves said.
But East Brunswick did not fade. The Bears rallied to take 40-38 and 42-41 leads.
Atlantic City, however, prevailed with a serious of big plays in the closing minutes.
After Graves scored with 1:55 left to give Atlantic City the lead for good, he picked up a technical foul for excessively celebrating the basket.
East Brunswick sank 1-of-2 technical foul shots and then had the ball with a chance to take the lead.
But Montague dove to the floor to make a steal. On the ensuing possession, Atlantic City reserve guard Dzja Chase penetrated and passed to Montague underneath for a layup. East Brunswick fouled Montague, who made the foul shot to put the Vikings up 48-44 with 1:10 left.
“I was scared because (the pass) got tipped before it got to me,” Montague said. “The only thing I could think of was, ‘Grab it.’ The easy part was finishing. I was right there.”
Tashad Reynolds, Chase and Montague then made foul shots in the 52 seconds to preserve the victory. East Brunswick sank a 3-pointer at the buzzer to make the score seem closer than it was.
Atlantic City needed to be at its best in the second half to top East Brunswick’s first-half effort.
The Bears baffled Atlantic City with a 1-3-1 zone defense in the first two quarters. The Vikings were 0-for-9 from 3-point range in the first half.
East Brunswick (26-4) led 15-4 in the first quarter and 33-19 with 2:45 left in the first half.
An Atlantic City comeback seemed far-fetched.
“That’s a very good team,” Vikings coach Gene Allen said. “To say I was solid about us coming back? Absolutely not. But I was hoping we could make some plays.”
Emotions were raw in Atlantic City’s locker room. There was plenty of laughter and tears.
Atlantic City rallied for victory in several games on its way to winning the state title last season. The Vikings trailed Lenape by 10 points and came back to win 51-40 in Monday’s South Jersey title game.
But considering how talented East Brunswick is, Wednesday’s win has to be considered one of the Vikings ‘best postseason wins ever. East Brunswick twice beat defending state Non-Public A champion St. Joseph-Metuchen this season.
The Vikings are 17-1 in elimination games since last season. They have won 49 of their last 52 games.
One of the best stretches ever by a local basketball team continues Sunday at Rutgers.
Contact Michael McGarry:
Atlantic City 10 13 10 18—51
East Brunswick 20 13 4 12—49
AC—D. Reynolds 2 1-2 5, Graves 6 2-2 17, Montague 6 3-8 15, Chandler 3 0-0 6, White 3 0-0 6, Chase 0 1-2 1, T. Reynolds 0 1-2 1. Totals 20 8-16 51
EB—Bell 2 2-2 7, Baumer 2 1-2 7, Leung 4 1-2 10, Ukawuba 6 2-3 16, Krantz 4 0-4 8, Taylor 0 1-2 1. Totals 18 7-15 49
3-pointers—Graves (3) AC. Bell, Baumer (2), Ukawuba (2), Leung EB.
Records—Atlantic City 28-1; East Brunwsick 26-4