TOMS RIVER — The Atlantic City High School boys basketball team won twice in overtime en route to winning a state championship and earning a spot in the Tournament of Champions.
The Vikings upset three higher-seeded opponents on the road. They came from behind to win five games.
That was nothing.
On Wednesday night, the Vikings outdid themselves with a rally so preposterous even they had to shake their heads at what they had just accomplished.
Senior point guard Martel Johnson made a 3-pointer at the fourth-quarter buzzer to force overtime and senior swingman Kashawn Dunston made two more shots from beyond the arc in overtime as the Vikings beat Ewing 68-65 in the Tournament of Champions quarterfinals at Pine Belt Arena.
Dunston told a teammate after the game he was surprised his shots went in.
“This is what it’s all about at this point in the season,” Vikings coach Gene Allen said. “You want your seniors to take the big shots. You want them to be composed and to come through.”
Atlantic City trailed by four with 25 seconds left in regulation and 65-60 with 1 minute, 30 seconds left in overtime.
“When I looked in their eyes, they had a certain look,” Allen said of his players. “I don’t know how to describe it. They’re so mentally tough. They believe in each other. This is what you call a team.”
Fourth-seeded Atlantic City (26-5) meets national power St. Anthony of Jersey City, the top seed, in a semifinal at 8 p.m. Friday at the Rutgers Athletic Center in Piscataway.
Atlantic City wowed the crowd that nearly filled the Pine Belt Arena with clutch shot after clutch shot Wednesday.
Johnson tied the game at 58 in regulation with a 3-pointer at the buzzer. Dunston (23 points) sank consecutive 3-pointers to give Atlantic City a 66-65 lead with 32 seconds left in overtime. Ga-briel Chandler made two free throws with 23 seconds left to put the Vikings up three. Ewing missed a desperation 3-pointer with 0.4 seconds left.
The TOC matches the six teams that won state tournaments. Ewing, the No. 5 seed, won the Group II championship. Atlantic City is the Group IV champion.
The Blue Devils (26-7) appeared to be headed for a dramatic win of their own in regulation.
They trailed Atlantic City by four with 2:32 left in fourth quarter.
After Ewing forward David Azoroh (21 points) cut the lead to two with a driving layup, the Blue Devils forced two turnovers in six seconds and converted them into easy baskets to take a 52-50 lead.
Ewing seemed to have clinched the win when it broke Atlantic City’s press, and Blue Devils forward Ron Valentine made a layup with seven seconds left to give Ewing a 58-55 lead.
The Vikings inbounded the ball to Johnson, who dribbled up court.
“I saw time ticking down,” he said.
The Ewing defenders left Johnson and shifted toward Dunston, who had just sank a 3-pointer with 18 seconds left.
“Dunston was calling (for the ball),” Johnson said. “Once they started drifting toward (Dunston), I didn’t want to get a turnover. I just stepped into it and drilled it.”
Johnson, who is not known for his outside shooting, stopped just to the left of the top of the key, a few feet beyond the arc. He took his time and measured the shot. The buzzer sounded while the ball was in the air.
“From my vantage point, it was never in doubt of going in,” Allen said.
The ball swished through to force overtime.
“I left (my shooting) hand up,” Johnson said. “I followed through, just like I work on in the summer.”
Chants of “Ooh, ooh, AC Vikings!” filled the arena. The Vikings mobbed Johnson at halfcourt.
Johnson’s regulation heroics didn’t rattle Ewing in overtime.
The Blue Devils built a 65-60 lead behind Azoroh, who made a foul shot and drove for a layup.
What happened next was one of the most remarkable stretches in Atlantic City’s storied history.
Dunston made a 3-pointer from the deep left corner to cut the lead to two with 1:21 left.
Dunston followed that basket with an off-balance 3-pointer from the right wing off an inbounds play to give the Vikings a 66-65 lead with 32 seconds left.
“I was just shooting it, hoping it went in,” Dunston said. “I wasn’t on balance. Luckily, they went in.”
After a Ewing miss, Chandler (10 points, 10 rebounds) got fouled while grabbing a rebound.
Chandler received some some inspirational words from Johnson and then calmly made both free throws to put the Vikings up three with 23 seconds left.
The Vikings clamped down on defense the rest of the way. Ewing never had an open look at a 3-pointer. Dontae Jones forced up a 3 from the left baseline that missed with 0.4 seconds left.
The win was Atlantic City’s third overtime victory and sixth comeback win in seven postseason games. Nothing seems to effect the Vikings. Dunston played much of the second half with a bemused look and a smile.
“I was enjoying myself,” he said with a smile.
St. Anthony (30-0) has won 63 straight games and won the TOC last year. The Friars are coached by basketball Hall of Famer Bob Hurley.
Atlantic City will worry about the legendary Friars sometime later today.
Wednesday’s comeback deserves to be savored. The Vikings, however, don’t want to overthink their streak of remarkable wins.
Allen was asked if he walks away from these games thinking, “Did that really happen?”
“When I’m sitting on the beach somewhere, I’ll say all those things,” Allen said. “Right now we’re just enjoying the ride. We’re happy all the way around.”
Who can blame them?
Contact Michael McGarry:
Ewing 10 17 8 23 7—65
Atlantic City 14 13 14 17 10—68
EW—Crews 5 3-7 13, Valentine 2 0-0 4, York 2 3-5 7, Jones 8 2-3 18, Azoroh 9 3-7 21, Bartlett 1 0-0 2. Totals 27 11-22 65.
AC—Dunston 7 6-6 23, D. Reynolds 2 0-2 5, Johnson 3 1-4 8, Montague 5 0-3 10, Chandler 1 8-8 10, Graves 4 1-1 9, McKinley 1 0-0 2, White 0 1-2 1. Totals 23 17-26 68.
3-Pointers—Dunston (3), Johnson, D. Reynolds AC.
Records—Ewing 26-7; Atlantic City 26-5.