The Atlantic City High School boys basketball team used to dread games such as tonight's matchup with Lenape for the South Jersey Group IV title.
Now the Vikings welcome it.
Top-seeded Atlantic City (26-1) will host second-seeded Lenape (25-3) at 7 p.m. Atlantic City, the defending state Group IV champion, is trying to win its fifth S.J. title since 2005 and the ninth in school history. Atlantic City is ranked No. 1 in The Press Elite11, while Lenape is No. 4.
Tonight's game figures to be low scoring. The first team to 45 points could win. Virtually every possession will be critical.
The same teams met in last season's quarterfinals with Atlantic City winning 47-44 in overtime. Neither team led by more than three points in regulation.
"We just have to play Atlantic City basketball - play defense," Vikings guard Isiah Graves said.
Graves' statement shows just how much the mindset of the Atlantic City program has changed.
In the past, low-scoring, defensive games weren't Atlantic City's style. The Vikings wanted to push the tempo and outscore teams. The higher scoring the game, the better it was for Atlantic City.
But these Vikings are comfortable playing in the halfcourt. They don't get flustered when points are tough to come by and fast breaks rare.
Atlantic City coach Gene Allen said earlier this season that the Vikings would be comfortable winning 2-0.
They might have to tonight.
Both teams rely on defense. Lenape has held opponents to fewer than 40 points in 14-of-28 games. Atlantic City has done the same in 10-of-27 games. Atlantic City pressures teams all over the court. Lenape concentrates its defense in the halfcourt.
"I think we're going to have to (create) turnovers," Allen said. "If we don't, I think it's going to be a real struggle. Hopefully, we can get some steals and run outs. We're a much better team when we do that."
Atlantic City and Lenape both feature balances offenses.
Senior forward Ga-briel Chandler leads the Vikings in scoring with an 11.9 average. But what makes Atlantic City difficult to defend is that all five starters are capable of scoring 20 points in a game.
The Vikings also don't seem fazed by the pressure of repeating as S.J. and state champions.
They don't fear losing. Atlantic City is 15-1 in elimination games, including the Cape-Atlantic League tournament, the past two seasons. The Vikings are 47-3 since starting last season 5-4.
"We don't discuss (repeating as state champions)," Allen said. "We just go out and play. This group understands that when you play for Atlantic City, you're going to be challenged and they've met those challenges."
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