CHERRY HILL — The Atlantic City High School boys basketball team can boast of many momentous victories in its illustrious history.
But the Vikings never pulled off a three-game stretch such as the one that ended Tuesday afternoon with a South Jersey championship.
Jahleem Montague scored 15 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and blocked four shots as Vikings won at Cherry Hill East 52-41 in the South Jersey Group IV title game.
The win was Atlantic City’s third straight road victory in the playoffs and it gave the Vikings the eighth South Jersey title in the program’s history. The Vikings (23-5), No. 7 in The Press Elite 11, will meet Central Jersey champion Middle-town North in a state semifinal 6 p.m. Thursday at Egg Harbor Township High School.
Atlantic City point guard Martel Johnson dribbled away from defenders and then tossed the ball joyfully into the air when Tuesday’s final buzzer sounded.
“I just thought, ‘We’re champs,’ ” he said. “It was a great feeling.”
That the Vikings even made it to play at the second-seeded Cougars, No. 11 in the Elite 11, was remarkable considering how difficult Atlantic City’s draw was.
The fifth-seeded Vikings won 47-44 at fourth-seeded Lenape in the quarterfinals last Thursday and 65-63 at top-seeded Eastern in the semifinals last Saturday.
In the three road wins, Atlantic City traveled more than 300 miles. Few local teams — if any — have won a tougher stretch of games on the road on its way to a sectional title.
“I’ve followed Atlantic City all my life, and I’ve never seen an Atlantic City team win this many significant games on the road,” Vikings coach Gene Allen said.
The Vikings got off their yellow school bus Tuesday and immediately ran into a long line of Cherry Hill East fans waiting to get into the gym. The Cougars were playing in their first South Jersey final.
Fans packed East’s stuffy gym. More than 60 minutes before tip-off a raucous, red-clad student section that easily topped more than 500 people was in place cheering every shot Atlantic City missed in warm-ups.
“It was crazy out there,” Montague said. “I’ve never seen so many fans. I like playing in games like this. It was a fun game to play in.”
Atlantic City controlled the game from the start with it man-to-man defense.
The Vikings forced Cherry Hill into seven first-quarter turnovers. The Cougars attempted just three shots — making one — in the first eight minutes.
Cherry Hill East finished the first half with 18 turnovers.
“We thought we could put ball pressure on them, and we really wanted to take the crowd out of the game as much as possible,” Allen said.
The Vikings also dominated inside with 6-foot-8 Montague, the 6-5 Ga-briel Chandler (10 points, 10 rebounds), and the 6-3 Kashawn Dunston (10 points, nine rebounds)
Atlantic City never trailed. The Vikings took control with 14-2 second-quarter run that gave them a 25-11 lead with 44 seconds left in the first half. Chandler and Montague each scored four points during the spurt.
Cherry Hill East handled the ball better in the third and fourth quarters. The Cougars cut Atlantic City’s lead to six points twice and five points once in the second half.
But each time East seemed on the verge of seizing the momentum and closing the gap even more, Atlantic City responded. More often than not it was Montague, who scored, grabbed a rebound or blocked a shot to halt the East rally.
Montague drew the derision of the East fans in the first half when he missed a dunk.
After Cherry Hill East scored the first four points of the third quarter, Montague dunked, scored on a post move and sank a foul shot to push the Vikings lead back to 11. He grabbed a rebound and scored after East cut the lead to five with 2:37 left in the third quarter.
“I didn’t have a good first half,” Montague said, “but we’re a second-half team, and I’m a second-half player.”
Montague all but clinched the victory when he rebounded a missed Atlantic City foul shot in the fourth quarter. He scored and was fouled. Montague made the free throw to give the Vikings a 40-30 lead with 6:53 left in the game.
South Jersey titles are titles are always special, but the way the Vikings won this one makes it even more memorable.
The road wins showed Atlantic City’s best characteristics – mental toughness and depth.
“This puts a certain (mark) on this Atlantic City team,” Allen said. “Give Cherry Hill East credit. It was a wonderful atmosphere. I want our players to savor this. This is something they can talk about with their children and their children’s children.”
Tuesday’s win also added to the Vikings’ luster. They have won fourth South Jersey titles and one state championship since Allen took over the program in 2004.
The Atlantic City players changed quickly and hurried out of Cherry Hill. The Vikings then did what they have done all playoffs. They got back on the bus ready for the next round.
Contact Michael McGarry:
Atlantic City 9 16 12 15—52
Cherry Hill East 4 11 12 14—41
AC—Dunston 4 1-1 10, Johnson 0 1-2 1, Montague 6 3-5 15, Chandler 5 0-2 10, D. Reynolds 4 0-0 8, Graves 2 0-2 4, McKinley 2 0-0 4. Totals 23 5-12 52.
CHE—Schlessel 3 4-5 12, Gold 0 2-2 2, Gurkin 4 0-0 8, Hettinger 2 2-3 6, Silpe 3 4-7 10, Frazier 1 1-2 3. Totals 13 13-19 41.
3-pointers—Dunston AC. Schlessel (2) CHE.
Records—Atlantic City 23-5; Cherry Hill East 21-9