The Atlantic City High School boys basketball team hopes to hang around long enough to have a shot at an upset that would make national headlines tonight.
The fourth-seeded Vikings (26-5) will play top-seeded St. Anthony (30-0) in a Tournament of Champions semifinal. Tipoff is 8 p.m. at the Rutgers Athletic Center in Piscataway. The winner advances to the TOC final at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Izod Arena in East Rutherford.
"What I'm preaching to the kids is, let's play and get into the fourth quarter," Vikings head coach Gene Allen said. "If we are in contention in the fourth quarter, pressure starts to mount on them. We have no pressure."
That's easier said than done, however.
St. Anthony's resume is long and impressive. The Jersey City school has won 63 straight games. The Friars have won a record 11 TOC titles, including last year's event. They have won 27 state championships. St. Anthony coach Bob Hurley is in the Basketball Hall of Fame. His career record is 1,047-110.
St. Anthony's success has been chronicled on the television show "60 Minutes," the book "The Miracle of St. Anthony" and the documentary "The Street Stops Here."
USA Today ranks St. Anthony No. 3 in the country. The Friars' top player, 6-foot-8 Kyle Anderson, is headed to UCLA. Anderson's father, Kyle Anderson Sr., is a Cape May native.
"We'll go out fighting and let the chips fall where they may," Allen said. "You never know, especially with the run we're on now."
Atlantic City's playoff run is one of the most thrilling ever by a local team.
Dating back to the Cape-Atlantic League tournament, the Vikings have won nine straight elimination games by an average margin of 5.2 points (though a loss in the league tournament would only have ended their CAL title hopes, not their season). Atlantic City has rallied in the second half in eight of those nine wins. Three of the victories came in overtime. Five of the nine wins were by three points or fewer.
Atlantic City comes off one of the most emotional wins in school history. The Vikings rallied for a 68-65 overtime win over fifth-seeded Ewing in the TOC quarterfinals Wednesday. Point guard Martel Johnson tied the game with a 3-pointer at the regulation buzzer. Atlantic City trailed by five in overtime, but Kashawn Dunston sank consecutive 3-pointers to give the Vikings the lead for good.
The TOC consists of the six teams that won state championships. Atlantic City won Group IV; St. Anthony is the Non-Public B champion.
No local team has ever won the TOC since the event began in 1989. Two teams, the 1993 Middle Township boys and the 1992 Egg Harbor Township girls, reached the final. EHT lost to St. Peter's 51-45; St. Anthony - who else? - beat Middle 84-59.
The Vikings do not seem intimidated by St. Anthony. Several Vikings play on the same AAU teams as St. Anthony players.
"Everybody knows St. Anthony is a tough team, but we're a tough team also," Johnson said. "They put their socks on the same way we do ours. We're just going to go out there and compete."
Atlantic City must keep that attitude once the game starts. The Vikings will develop a plan for tonight's game just as they would for any other opponent.
"If you don't do that, I think you're defeated already," Allen said. "I think 75 percent of the battle is thinking that you can be in the battle. They defeat you mentally before the game even starts."
To have any chance of winning, the Vikings must not wilt when confronted with St. Anthony's man-to-man pressure.
Hurley has called this his best defensive team - a scary statement considering the Friars' defensive prowess is the foundation of the program's success. St. Anthony held Gill St. Bernard's to eight points in the first half of the state Non-Public B title game. The Friars allowed an average of 34.8 points during the state tournament.
"Our goal is to stay as mentally tough as possible," Allen said. "We have to play well in the half court and not have too many empty possessions. If we use 30 or 40 seconds of the clock and get a quality shot, that's a good job."
No matter the outcome of tonight's game, the Vikings seem determined to make the most of the experience.
"The team is looking forward to playing them," Vikings junior guard Dayshawn Reynolds said. "You have to beat the best to be the best."
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