ABSECON - The Atlantic City High School boys basketball team made a decisive run to win a big game Thursday night.
Unlike previous times in their illustrious history, the Vikings took their time.
Atlantic City played a deliberate style and beat rival Holy Spirit by the startling score of 62-46 in a Cape-Atlantic League American Division game.
Brian Nolan came off the bench to score 11 pivotal points for Atlantic City. Vikings seniors Dennis White and Isiah Graves scored 16 and 13 points, respectively, despite sitting most of the first half in foul trouble.
Spirit (9-2) is ranked No. 1 in The Press Elite 11. Atlantic City (7-2) is No. 3. Atlantic City came into the game as the underdog - a role the Vikings relished but couldn't understand since they are the two-time defending CAL and state Group IV champions.
"Before you bury Atlantic City," Vikings coach Gene Allen said, "we're not dead yet."
Atlantic City won because it executed its half-court offense with unselfish play. Atlantic City outscored Spirit 16-3 during a seven-minute stretch of the second half.
So many times in its past, Atlantic City has made similar runs. But those mostly came in a matter of seconds after a flurry of steals and fast-break layups. That wasn't the case Thursday.
"We wanted to control the tempo," Graves said. "We watched a lot of film on them. They try to play fast. But we knew if we defended them 95 feet it would make it a hard game for them. In the half-court set, we just look for the open shot."
Meanwhile, Spirit scored just one basket during a nine-minute period in the third and fourth quarters. The Spartans struggled in part because of Atlantic City's stingy man-to-man defense. The Vikings held Holy Spirit standout guard John Middleton to six points.
"We lost this game because of our lack of execution in the half court," Spirit coach Jamie Gillespie said. "We resorted too often to one-on-one play. We did a brutal job of executing offensively and our kids need to know that."
Holy Spirit vs. Atlantic City is one of the CAL's top rivalries in any sport. Thursday's game was one of the most anticipated of the season. Fans packed Holy Spirit's gym. About 100 more couldn't get into the gym after the game sold out.
How the teams play against each other helps define their seasons. Atlantic City went 3-0 against Spirit last season.
Atlantic City trailed 33-29 with six minutes left in the third quarter.
The Vikings didn't panic. They stayed patient and slowed the pace against a Spirit team that wanted to play at a fast tempo.
"We felt if we ran the offense through, we could get the looks we wanted, and we got them," Allen said.
Atlantic City swingman Jamir Prevard began the pivotal 16-3 run with a 3-pointer from the left corner. Graves sank a driving layup to put Atlantic City up 35-34 with 3 minutes, 58 seconds left in the third quarter. The Vikings never trailed again.
Atlantic City led by five after three quarters and scored the first two baskets of the fourth quarter. Graves made another driving layup and Nolan tipped in a Graves miss to give Atlantic City a 45-36 lead with 6:59 left in the game.
Atlantic City was in position to control the second half because it survived the first half. Graves and White - the only returning starters from last year's team - both sat the entire second quarter with two fouls.
Nolan, who spent his freshman season at Holy Spirit before transferring to Atlantic City, scored seven second-quarter points to help the Vikings only trail by two at halftime.
"I had to come back (to Spirit) with intensity," Nolan said. "I know a lot of these kids. It was nice playing against them."
Spirit left the court disappointed after the contest. The Spartans took over the No. 1 spot in The Press Elite 11 this week.
"I don't think any game in January is a must-win," Gillespie said. "But what we have to do is learn from what happened. Our kids need to understand we need to execute in the halfcourt. We didn't do that, and, to their credit, they did."
With the win, Atlantic City puts itself in position to get the top seed in the CAL tournament. But the Vikings - like Spirit - understand there is more basketball to be played this season. These two teams will meet again at Atlantic City the final week of the regular season in February.
"This win says nothing," Allen said. "You don't win championships in January. You build momentum in January. But you win them in February."
Contact Michael McGarry: