The Atlantic City High School boys basketball team doesn't have a star player.

The Vikings didn't have home-court advantage for most of the state tournament.

But Atlantic City isn't worried about what it doesn't have. The Vikings just care about winning. They grew up together and look out for each other on and off the court.

Those are the biggest reasons why the Vikings are in the midst of one of the best playoff runs in local history.

Atlantic City (24-5) meets Elizabeth (22-6) for the state Group IV championship at 5 p.m. today at Rutgers University Athletic Center in Piscataway.

"You find a team like this just every so often," Vikings senior point guard Martel Johnson said. "You have to take advantage of it. We know this is real big."

Few high school basketball fans thought Atlantic City could survive its tough playoff draw to make it to a state final.

Atlantic City beat fourth-seeded Lenape, second-seeded Cherry Hill East and top-seeded Eastern on the road in the South Jersey playoffs.

Atlantic City's illustrious basketball history is filled with great players such as 1984 graduate Willie Glass, who went on to star at St. John's, and 1991 graduate Lou Roe, who was an NBA draft choice. These Vikings don't feature a player of that talent.

But few Atlantic City teams - if any - have played defense like these Vikings. They harass opponents with full-court, man-to-man pressure that never lets up. Atlantic City has won 19 of its last 20 games and allowed an average of 42.8 points during that stretch.

Atlantic City was 5-4 when it held a meeting and the players committed to a defense-first mentality.

At that meeting, coach Gene Allen asked the players what they wanted to achieve,

The players said they wanted to win a state championship.

"He said, 'To do that, you're going to have to step up the defense,' " Johnson said. "Defense wins championships. We bought into it."

Another of the Vikings' strengths is their depth.

Johnson supplies stability and leadership at point guard. Jahleem Montague, a 6-foot-8 junior, can affect a game with his shot-blocking and rebounding. Ga-briel Chandler and Keyshawn Reynolds are tough to stop inside. Senior guard Kashawn Dunston provides timely scoring and 3-point shooting. Junior guard Dayshawn Reynolds is one of the region's top defenders.

The Vikings have had four different leading scorers in their five playoff games.

Allen has followed these Vikings since they played in the city's elementary- and middle-school programs.

"There's never been one superstar in this group," Allen said. "But I'd rather have kids like this. We have a motto "Five as one" and that's what they've been playing like."

Atlantic City isn't perfect. Players sometimes get upset if they don't score as much or play as much as they think they should. But at a time when those problems can wreck a team, the Vikings keep those troubles to a minimum.

Allen gives credit to Johnson for the team-first attitude.

"All Martel wants to do is win, and that becomes infectious," Allen said.

Most of the Vikings have been friends since elementary school. They hang out at each other's homes. Johnson's home on the west side of the city is a main gathering spot. The Vikings gather to play Madden and NBA2K video games.

Johnson says without hesitation that he's the best with a video-game controller in his hand.

"They'll tell you," Johnson said of his teammates.

Dayshawn Reynolds agrees with Johnson's assessment of his video-game skills.

"I give it to him," Reynolds said with a laugh. "I give it to him."

The Vikings can communicate on the court with just a look or a glance.

"I know when Martel looks at me and drives, he's going to pass to me for a dunk," Montague said. "I know if Dayshawn looks at me where I have to move. We have that type of chemistry. We've been playing together forever."

The Vikings also talk about problems they have away from the game.

"Everybody's life isn't perfect away from basketball," Dayshawn Reynolds said.

That closeness helps Atlantic City withstand adversity on the court. Two of the Vikings' five playoff wins have been decided in overtime. Atlantic City nearly lost its first playoff game trailing Absegami by two points in overtime before rallying for a 65-59 victory Feb. 28.

The Vikings trailed Middletown North by nine points in the state semifinal before rallying for a 60-50 win last Thursday.

The exciting comebacks and selfless style of play have resonated with Atlantic City supporters. The administration and Board of Education have organized fan buses to postseason away games. Crowds have grown with each win.

"This team is the heart (attack) team," Atlantic City athletic director Frank Campo said. "You watch them and your heart (flutters). The games are tight, and they just miraculously have these runs. They bring a lot of excitement. They come back. They don't quit."

In Elizabeth, the Vikings will meet a young team that is also in the midst of a remarkable playoff run. Elizabeth won a total of 11 games the past two seasons. Point guard Hakeem Rogers averages 14 points. This is Elizabeth's first state final appearance since 1995. The Minutement were a state power in the 1980s and 1990s, winning four straight Group IV titles from 1988-91.

This is Atlantic City's seventh state final appearance. The Vikings' lone state title came in 2005.

No matter what happens today, the Vikings will face their fate together.

"We play for each other no matter what," Dayshawn Reynolds said.

Contact Michael McGarry:


State Group IV boys basketball championship

Who: Atlantic City (24-5) vs. Elizabeth (22-5)

Where/when: 5 p.m. today at Rutgers University Athletic Center in Piscataway

Tickets: $5 for adults, $3 for students and senior citizens

Radio: 97.3 FM