ATLANTIC CITY — With a one-point lead and 11 seconds left, the Atlantic City High School boys basketball players settled into their defensive stances with their backs to the Holy Spirit basket.
The Spartans — Atlantic City’s biggest rival — had the ball with a chance for the upset win.
The Vikings were completely at ease in the situation — why not with the way Atlantic City defends?
Atlantic City guard Isiah Graves made a steal on Holy Spirit’s final possession to preserve the Vikings’ 44-41 win in a matchup of Cape-Atlantic League American Division contenders. Atlantic City (10-0) is No. 1 in The Press Elite 11, while Holy Spirit (6-4) is No. 11.
Forward Ga-briel Chandler gave the Vikings the lead for good when he rebounded a missed Graves foul shot and scored in the lane to make it 42-41 Atlantic City with 55 seconds left.
The Vikings harassed Spirit ball handlers with an aggressive man-to-man defense for the entire game. Vikings guard Dayshawn Reynolds made six steals.
Holy Spirit called a timeout before its final possession. Atlantic City forward Dennis White told Vikings coach Gene Allen in the huddle that Atlantic City would be fine.
“From that point, I felt good,” Allen said. “I knew they were in tune to make a stop.”
Holy Spirit didn’t get a shot off before Graves made the steal on the possession. He passed to Reynolds for a layup at the buzzer.
“I thought (Spirit) should have won,” Allen said. “We were fortunate that we just turned them over.”
Fans nearly filled Atlantic City’s gym. Holy Spirit vs. Atlantic City is one of the region’s top rivalries regardless of sport. Many of the players from both teams come from Absecon Island.
“These games are (always) competitive,” Chandler said. “We’re all friends.”
Spirit was coming off a 51-34 home loss to Middle Township on Saturday. Atlantic City beat Middle 58-39 on Jan. 3.
Some fans thought those two scores would translate into an easy win for the Vikings.
Allen was having none of that.
“I forewarned the kids that this game was going to be completely different than the (Middle vs. Spirit contest),” he said.
Holy Spirit slowed the tempo with a zone defense that forced the Vikings to shoot from the outside. Atlantic City made just 2-of-8 3-point attempts.
Spirit also maintained its poise in the face of an Atlantic City defense that forced numerous turnovers. Freshman Leon Daniels led the Spartans with 10 points.
Still, Atlantic City led 37-30 after Chandler sank a 17-foot jumper with 7 minutes, 3 seconds left in the game. Chandler scored eight of his 10 points in the second half. He was sick over the weekend.
“I got my legs back under me (in the second half) and started breathing right,” Chandler said.
But just when it seemed that the Vikings were headed for a double-digit win, Holy Spirit rallied. Spartans forward Junior Saintel began a 9-0 run with a driving layup. John Middi finished the spurt when he rebounded a missed a 3-pointer and scored to put the Spartans ahead 39-37 with 4:30 left.
“We did an unbelievable job of staying with the game plan,” Spirit coach Jamie Gillespie said. “It would have been easy to cave down seven. We stayed the course. That was the message. No matter what happens out there, stay the course.”
Points were tough to come by in the final minutes. Fans were on their feet and there were plenty of groans as both teams missed shots and committed costly turnovers.
Chandler’s putback was just one of two baskets in the final four minutes. Graves’ missed foul shot bounced long just over the head of a Spirit player right to Chandler.
“I can’t even describe (the shot) it happened so fast,” the 6-4 senior said. “I just had to get my team the win.”
Spirit called timeout before its final possession. The Spartans passed the ball on the perimeter before Graves knocked the ball away from a Spirit dribbler.
Despite the defeat, the game was one the Spartans can build on. Spirit has not played up to expectations so far this season.
“This is the best we’ve played all year,” Gillespie said. “We came into their gym and played them tooth and nail.”
As for Atlantic City, the only thing that mattered was the final score. Games between the Vikings and Spirit are rarely artistic successes no matter who wins.
“It’s a good win for us,” Allen said. “We would have liked to play better, but in this type of game everybody knows everybody. This was to be expected.”
Contact Michael McGarry:
Holy Spirit 11 5 14 11—41
Atlantic City 10 13 12 9—44
HS—Moore 3 2-2 9, Saintel 3 1-2 7, Midi 2 3-5 7, Middleton 1 0-0 3, Daniels 3 4-4 10, Taylor 2 1-1 5. Totals—13 11-14 41.
AC—Chandler 5 0-0 10, Montague 4 0-1 8, Reynolds 3 0-0 7, Graves 3 2-6 8, White 3 0-0 6, Thomas 1 0-0 2, Allen 1 0-0 3. Totals—20 2-7 44.
3-pointers—HS. Middleton AC. Allen, Reynolds
Records—Holy Spirit 6-4; Atlantic City 10-0.