HAMMONTON - Atlantic City High School boys basketball coach Gene Allen asked senior Martel Johnson several times if he felt well enough to play.
He asked at least twice before the Cape-Atlantic League semifinal Tuesday. He asked at halftime and even when there was 35 seconds left in the game. Every time, Johnson, who had a fever and flu-like symptoms, said he was OK.
Allen stuck with his point guard and Johnson hit two huge free throws with about 20 seconds left to give the second-seeded Vikings a 35-32 win over No. 5 Holy Spirit and advance to the CAL title game against Middle Township (16-9) at Richard Stockton College on Saturday at 2 p.m. Atlantic City (18-5) is ranked 11 in The Press Elite 11.
This is the first time the CAL has gone to an expanded tournament format. The league used to have the two top teams in each league play in a title game.
"I was just trying to take my team to Stockton on Saturday. It was all or nothing," Johnson said. "If I didn't play, I would have felt like I let my team down. I feel as though if I wouldn't have played, we probably wouldn't have won. I wanted our team to have the best chance to win."
Despite his sickness, Johnson played a solid point guard, although he had what could have been two crucial turnovers late in the fourth quarter. Holy Spirit (17-8) converted points both times and took a 32-31 lead with 1 minute, 58 seconds left when Liam McManimon hit one of two free throws.
Atlantic City's Kashawn Dunston got the Vikings their final lead when he drained two free throws to take a 33-32 lead.
"I just didn't want coach yelling at me," said Dunston, who wore a hooded sweatshirt with "I Survived Coach Allen" written on the back. "We worked on free throws in practice. Now, all the seniors are getting a chance to play in the first CAL championship."
Hitting foul shots has been a struggle for Atlantic City. But Allen worked with his players to prepare them for moments such as Dunston and Johnson faced.
There were no nerves for his players while on the foul line.
"The work we are doing is starting to pay off," Allen said. "They are buying into the importance of making foul shots. Also, they're seniors and they have that sense of urgency."
This is the third meeting between Atlantic City and Holy Spirit this season. The teams split the first two games, but one thing that stood to Allen was how well they contained Paul Moore, one of Spirit's best players. In the first and second matchup, Moore was held to 14 and 12 points, respectively.
On Tuesday, he had a game-high nine points with seven rebounds, and was 3-for-12 from the field.
"I think we have done a great job on Moore all season long," Allen said. "Dayshawn Reynolds deserves all the credit. He's done a great job against him and we like that match up."
The game didn't start well for Atlantic City. Holy Spirit jumped out to a 13-5 lead in the first quarter with Moore scoring seven of his nine points.
The second quarter wasn't much better but was tougher for Spirit. The Spartans managed to make just one bucket when McManimon scored while getting fouled, and hit a foul shot.
This allowed Atlantic City to come back and trail 16-12 heading into halftime.
When the Vikings came out of the break, they looked seemingly like a different team. They created two quick turnovers and scored three straight baskets to tie the game at 18-all.
"If you watched us all year, we have played horrible in the first quarter," Allen said. "We just had we have to regroup, put on a little more ball pressure and speed up the game and we need to defend a little better."
Contact Susan Lulgjuraj:
Holy Spirit 13 3 8 8-32
Atlantic City 5 7 11 12-35
HS-Sommers 1 2-2 5, Santiel 1 0-0 2, Jones 3 3-3 9, Moore 3 2-4 9, Midi 0 1-2 1, McManimon 2 2-3 6. Totals 10 10-14 32.
AC-Dunston 3 3-3 9, D. Reynolds 2 0-2 4, Johnson 2 2-2 6, Montague 2 1-2 5, Chandler 3 0-1 6, Graves 2 1-2 5. Totals 14 6-11 35.
3-pointers-Sommers, Moore HS; Dunston AC.
Records-Atlantic City 18-5, Holy Spirit 17-8