PISCATAWAY — Point guard Martel Johnson of the Atlantic City High School boys basketball team sat glumly on the bench in foul trouble for most of the first half of the state Group IV title game Sunday night.
Atlantic City’s inside players missed countless layups during the first three quarters. The Vikings combined those misses with turnovers.
Meanwhile, an undersized Elizabeth used its quickness to beat the Vikings to loose balls and build a lead. The Minutemen led by as many as nine in the first half.
In other words, things were going according to plan for Atlantic City.
The Vikings — just as they had in nearly all of their previous five playoff games — rallied in the fourth quarter to beat Elizabeth 53-47 and win the state Group IV championship at the Rutgers Athletic Center. Jahleem Montague, a center, sparked the Vikings with 15 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks. Atlantic City (25-4) advances to the Tournament of Champions.
“This is crazy,” Montague said. “I can’t even explain how I feel. We’ll remember this forever.”
Montague epitomized Atlantic City’s effort. He scored eight points and grabbed seven rebounds in the final eight minutes after having struggled for the first three quarters.
“Like I said before, I’m a second-half player,” Montague said. “I got my second wind. I just didn’t get tired in the fourth quarter. I was frustrated in the first three quarters, but my coaches and teammates always keep me cool and calm.”
Atlantic City outscored Elizabeth 15-7 in the final 6 minutes, 25 seconds. The Vikings’ fans roared with each basket.
The state title is the second in Atlantic City boys basketball history. The first came in 2005.
Sunday’s win capped one of the best runs to a state title ever by a local basketball team. The Vikings beat fourth-seeded Lenape, second-seeded Cherry Hill East and top-seeded Eastern on the road in the South Jersey playoffs. Atlantic City trailed Absegami by two points in overtime in a first-round game. The Vikings trailed Lenape and Eastern in the fourth quarter of those games. They were down nine in the second half to Middletown North in the state semifinals.
The Vikings mobbed each other in celebration when the final buzzer sounded Sunday.
“This is every high school player’s dream,” guard Dayshawn Reynolds said. “When you get that opportunity (to play for a state title) and you win, it’s big.”
Atlantic City appeared to be in more trouble than usual against Elizabeth. The Minutemen (22-7) used their quickness to penetrate the Vikings’ defense for layups. Elizabeth led by as many as nine in the first half and five in the second.
Fans couldn’t help but wonder if all the road games and previous comebacks had caught up with the Vikings.
Atlantic City coach Gene Allen said he wasn’t fazed.
“I thought we would be fine,” he said. “We’ve done it all year long. Why wouldn’t I think we would do it (Sunday)?”
The Atlantic City players also maintained their poise.
“Everybody was going different ways,” Reynolds said. “We had to get everybody on the same page.”
The game began to shift in Atlantic City’s favor late in the third quarter. With Johnson back on the court, the Vikings cut down on turnovers.
Atlantic City also used its height advantage to score easy baskets. Montague and 6-3 guard Kashawn Dunston (nine points, eight rebounds) grabbed offensive rebounds and scored back-to-back baskets to give the Vikings their first lead: 38-37 with 7:18 left the game.
The Vikings took the lead for good when Reynolds (10 points, two steals) made a steal and sank a 10-foot jumper to put Atlantic City ahead 42-40 with 5:23 left.
Atlantic City took control with a 6-0 run that turned a one-point lead into a 48-41 edge with 2:40 left. Montague dunked off a pass from Ga-briel Chandler and Johnson scored on a driving layup during that spurt.
“We picked up the defense and we were able to score in transition,” Johnson said, “and we attacked their zone.”
Atlantic City has won 10 straight games and 20 of its last 21.
The state championship adds to the Vikings’ luster as one of the region’s preeminent programs. Atlantic City has won two state titles and four South Jersey champions during Allen’s nine seasons.
Allen conceded after Sunday’s game that he was exhausted.
It was a good kind of tired, however.
“I give the credit to the kids,” Allen said. “Without them buying into what we’re preaching, none of this is possible. What am I doing? I’m standing there hollering and screaming. They’re going out and getting it done.”
Atlantic City earned the fourth seed in the six-team Tournament of Champions. The Vikings will play fifth-seeded Ewing (the Group II winner) at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Pine Belt Arena in Toms River.
Atlantic City, however, can worry about that game later today or Tuesday. Sunday was time to savor a state championship.
“This was great,” Dunston said. “We came up here, played on a college court. Everybody was psyched. And we got the win.”
Contact Michael McGarry:
Elizabeth 15 11 11 10—47
Atlantic City 8 15 11 19—53
ELIZABETH—Thomas 1 2-3 4, Rogers 5 5-7 15, Walker 1 2-2 4, Miraud 0 3-4 3, Davis 7 2-2 16, Johnson 1 3-3 5. Totals 15 17-21 47.
ATLANTIC CITY—Dunston 3 2-2 9, D. Reynolds 4 1-2 10, Johnson 2 0-0 4, Montague 7 1-3 15, Chandler 1 0-0 2, K. Reynolds 1 2-4 4, Graves 1 0-0 3, Dorn 1 0-0 2, McKinley 2 0-0 4. Totals 22 6-11 53.
3-Pointers—Atlantic City, Dunston, D. Reynolds, Graves.
Records—Elizabeth 22-7; Atlantic City 25-5