VOORHEES TOWNSHIP — The Atlantic City High School boys basketball team probably will find itself on the road in a loud, raucous opponent’s gym during the South Jersey playoffs.
If and when that happens, the Vikings can look back at Saturday for the reason why.
Atlantic City stumbled early, never completely recovered and lost on the road to Eastern Regional 66-57 in a match of South Jersey Group IV contenders. Atlantic City (6-1) is ranked No. 3 in The Press Elite 11.
Atlantic City’s only lead of the game was 2-0. Eastern (7-3) then scored the next 13 points.
The Vikings had the ball in the final minute twice with a chance to tie but failed to execute both times.
“The magnitude of the situation for some of our guys was a little too big,” Vikings coach Gene Allen said. “When we really needed to make a play, we somehow didn’t make it, particularly on the defensive end.”
Ray Bethea Jr. led the Vikings with a game-high 25 points. Atlantic City played without starting point guard Nazim Derry, who was on a college football recruiting visit to Virginia Union University.
Point guard Jesse Barbera led Eastern with 22 points. Barbera was 6 for 6 from the foul line in the fourth quarter.
“We have unbelievable respect for the Atlantic City program,” Eastern coach Kevin Crawford said. “It’s a nice win for our program. We haven’t had a signature win around here in a while, and this was certainly right up there.”
A win would have gone a long way toward ensuring Atlantic City plenty of home games during the state tournament, which starts Feb. 26.
The game was a power-point bonanza. Teams are seeded for the playoffs based on how many power points they accumulate in their first 15 games. Teams earn power points based on their wins and their opponents’ record and enrollment. Atlantic City and Eastern are big schools with a lot of victories.
“That’s the whole thing, the power points that were (available) this game,” Allen said. “I tried to stress that (to the Vikings), but they didn’t get that. We needed this win.”
After its slow start, Atlantic City tied the game at 20 with 4 minutes, 20 seconds left in the first half. But Eastern responded with a 9-0 run and led 31-23 at halftime.
“It’s a street fight when you play Atlantic City,” Crawford said. “They’re going to hit you, and you have to hit back or you’re going to be licking your wounds. Our kids were not intimidated.”
Atlantic City didn’t catch Eastern in the second half, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.
The Vikings trailed 59-52 with 2:48 left. However, Ramone Rodriguez (19 points) sank a 3-pointer, and Bethea scored in the lane to cut the lead to two with 1:20 left. But the Vikings got no closer.
“If there is a silver lining, guys who normally don’t get to play in situations like these got to play (because of Derry’s absence),” Allen said. “They saw what this (type of basketball) is about. I’m encouraged. Ramone played really well. We’ve just got to get back at it and start all over again.”
Atlantic City 16 6 16 19—57
Eastern 18 13 16 19—66
A.C. — Bethea 25, Morgan 10, Rodriguez 19, Montague 2, Cooke 1
Eastern — Barbera 22, Edwards 12, Ems 10, Heck 3, Okoro 9, Pina 9, Winsett 1
3-pointers — A.C.: Rodriguez (3), Morgan; Eastern: Heck, Edwards (2)
Records — Atlantic City 6-1, Eastern 7-3