ATLANTIC CITY — Atlantic City High School’s boys basketball team was in trouble Monday night.
The Vikings’ quest for a second straight South Jersey Group IV championship couldn’t have gotten off to a rockier start. They made just one field goal in the first quarter and trailed visiting Lenape by as many as 12 points.
Senior guard Dayshawn Reynolds shook them out of their funk just in time.
The top-seeded Vikings used their intense, in-your-face defense to dominate the second half en route to a 51-40 victory before a rowdy crowd.
“That’s my role on this team, to try and be a leader,” Reynolds said. “After the first quarter, I just told the guys that it was time to turn it up on defense. If we had waited any longer, it could have been too late.”
While their defense played the biggest role in the victory, the Vikings’ fans undoubtedly provided some momentum and confidence. When junior guard Dennis White upped the lead to 46-35 with an acrobatic, two-handed dunk, the fans shook the gym with their trademark chant of “A.C. Vikings, ooh, ooh!”
At the final buzzer, they roared as the Vikings’ players celebrated on the court. The win gave Atlantic City (27-1) its ninth South Jersey title in program history and fifth under coach Gene Allen.
The Vikings, No. 1 in The Press Elite 11, are also the defending state Group IV champs. They will continue their bid for back-to-back titles Wednesday, when they take on Central Jersey champ East Brunswick in the state semifinals at Egg Harbor Township High School at 5:30 p.m. East Brunswick advanced with a 59-49 win over Trenton on Monday.
In some ways, Monday’s win may have been Atlantic City’s most impressive of the season, simply because of the way the Vikings earned it.
Second-seeded Lenape (25-4), No. 4 in the Elite 11, caught the Vikings flat-footed at the outset. The Indians scored the first 10 points of the game and led 14-4 after the first quarter. That prompted their own rowdy fan base to taunt the Vikings with chants of, “Overrated!”
“That was the craziest quarter I’ve ever seen,” Vikings junior guard Isiah Graves said. “We’ve never had to dig down that much early in a game. But Dayshawn calmed us down. He told us that it was time to kick up the intensity on defense, so that’s what we did. We wanted to show them what we’re all about.”
Graves, Reynolds and White led a defensive surge that forced seven Lenape turnovers in the second quarter. The Vikings scored the first seven points of the quarter — including a terrific play on which White grabbed a steal and fed Reynolds for a layup with a behind-the-back pass — during an 14-2 run that tied the game at 16-16 with 4 minutes, 58 seconds left in the quarter.
Vikings freshmen guard Lamar Thomas came off the bench to hit a pair of 3-pointers in the quarter, which ended at 23-23.
“I thought Lamar’s shots were big for us,” Allen said. “He’s not intimidated by anything, but he’s so young that I don’t think he knows any better.
“Our defense was the key, though. No disrespect to any other team, but I think we’ve got the best defense in South Jersey. Our defense fuels our offense.”
The defense enabled the Vikings to start to take control midway through the third quarter. Reynolds gave the Vikings the lead for good at 27-25 with a slashing drive through the lane with 4:10 left in the quarter, and then converted a steal with a layup at the 3:35 mark to up the edge to 29-25.
White took over from there. He scored 12 of his game-high 13 points in the final 10:25 of the game, including 10 points in the fourth quarter.
“We were a little nervous in the beginning of the game,” White said. “But we knew our defensive intensity would get us back in the game. Once we turned that up and started trusting each other, we knew we’d be OK.”
Contact David Weinberg:
Lenape 14 9 2 15—40
Atlantic City 4 19 8 20—51
L—Hand 3 0-0 6, Mostak 0 2-2 2, Gaither 3 2-2 8, C. Green 3 0-0 6, Moody 3 0-0 6, K. Green 0 5-6 5, Chudoff 0 4-4 4, McMahon 1 1-1 3. Totals 13 14-15 40.
AC—Graves 3 2-2 8, White 6 1-4 13, D. Reynolds 5 2-3 12, Montague 1 5-7 7, Chandler 1 0-0 2, T. Reynolds 0 1-2 1, Thomas 2 0-0 6, Torres 0 2-2 2. Totals 18 13-20 51.
3-pointers—Thomas (2) AC.
Records—Lenape 25-4; Atlantic City 27-1.