VOORHEES — The Atlantic City High School boys basketball team found itself in an unfamiliar, packed gym Saturday night.
Most of the crowd was against the Vikings.
Before they could catch their breath, the Vikings trailed the top seed in the South Jersey Group IV playoffs by 11 points.
Lesser teams would have crumbled.
Atlantic City seemed at home.
Kashawn Dunston scored 22 points as Atlantic City rallied in the fourth quarter to upset top-seeded Eastern 65-63 in a South Jersey Group IV semifinal. The fifth-seeded Vikings will play at second-seeded Cherry Hill East for the title at 4 p.m. Tuesday.
“We have a lot of character,” Dunston said, “and we come into any gym with the state of mind to win.”
Atlantic City (22-5) took control with a 12-4 run that gave the Vikings a 65-60 lead with three seconds left. Atlantic City played the final minutes as if it were the home team. The setting never rattled the Vikings.
Atlantic City took the lead for good when reserve guard Isaiah Graves passed to an open Ga-Briel Chandler under the basket. Chandler sank the layup to give the Vikings a 57-56 with 2 minutes, 28 seconds left. Atlantic City never trailed again.
Atlantic City point guard Martel Johnson sank two foul shots with 16.2 seconds left to put the Vikings up three.
“I thought if I make two, we go to the next round,” said Johnson, who also scored on a floater in the lane with 1:20 left to put Atlantic City up by three.
Dunston sank two with 3.4 seconds left to clinch the victory. Eastern sank a meaningless 3-pointer at the buzzer.
The Vikings also got several big plays from 6-foot-9 center Jahleem Montague (11 points, eight rebounds, four blocks). Montague converted a steal into a basket to put the Vikings up three with 48 seconds left.
“We showed tremendous character and tremendous guts,” Atlantic City coach Gene Allen said. “We had some obstacles. But they kept pushing, kept pushing and got contributions from a lot of people.”
Eastern is ranked No. 11 in The Press Elite 11, and Atlantic City is No. 7. Still, Eastern was the favorite because it was at home.
Atlantic City’s clutch play thrilled its fans who made the trip to Voorhees. Atlantic City fans packed the bleachers behind the team’s bench. Rarely have the Vikings received such support on the road in past years. At times the Atlantic City fans, with their chants, “Ooh, ooh, AC Vikings!” were louder than the home Eastern crowd.
“Our crowd played a big role in this, and we’re appreciative,” Allen said.
Atlantic City needed all the support it could get.
Eastern (24-4) dominated the first quarter.
Brett Knoblauch (19 points) and Devon Bell each sank 3-pointers in the first quarter as Eastern build a 19-8 lead.
Eastern led by as many 10 in the second quarter.
Dunston kept Atlantic City close. The 6-foot-3 senior made three 3-pointers in the first two quarters and scored 13 of the Vikings 24 first-half points.
“I had to pick the slack,” he said. “I didn’t want to go home.”
The momentum began to shift toward Atlantic City in the second half. Eastern began to wilt under Atlantic City’s defensive pressure.
“I thought at halftime we were wearing them down, but I really saw it in the third quarter,” Allen said. “They started missing some foul shots. They didn’t have the same legs.”
The fourth quarter was filled with moments that wowed fans of both teams.
In one sequence, Graves sank a 3-pointer to give the Vikings a 48-47 lead with 6:21 left.
Mike Wilson responded with a 3-pointer to put Eastern back up by two.
Dunston followed with a 3-pointer to give Atlantic City the lead back at 51-50.
“There was a lot of adrenalin,” Dunston said.
Atlantic City also won on the road in the quarterfinals, beating Lenape 47-44 in overtime.
The Vikings will have to take another bus ride to Cherry Hill on Tuesday. There they will find another gym packed with fans rooting for the home team.
Atlantic City doesn’t appear to mind.
Free throws: Tickets for the South Jersey final can be bought at the Atlantic City athletic director’s office on Monday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tickets are $3 for adults and $2 for students and senior citizens.
Contact Michael McGarry:
Atlantic City 11 13 17 24—65
Eastern 19 11 15 18—63
AC—Dunston 7 3-4 22, Johnson 1 2-2 4, Montague 3 5-6 11, D. Reynolds 3 1-3 8, K. Reynolds 2 2-4 6, Graves 2 0-0 5, Chandler 2 2-2 6, McKinley 1 0-0 2, Dorn 0 1-2 1. Totals 21 16-23 65.
E—Bell 4 3-5 12, Wilson 5 3-4 16, Knoblauch 6 4-7 19, Klinewski 1 2-2 4, Ford 2 2-3 6, Walker 3 0-2 6. Totals 21 14-23 63.
3-pointers—Dunston (5), D. Reynolds, Graves AC. Bell, Wilson (3), Knoblauch (3) E.
Records—Atlantic City 22-5; Eastern 24-4.