ATLANTIC CITY - The Atlantic City High School boys basketball team learned last season a stingy defense can lead to a state championship.
The Vikings just might be a better defensive team this season.
They are again a state championship contender.
Atlantic City shutdown Middle Township with a harassing man-to-man defense and won the matchup of Cape-Atlantic League powers 58-39 Thursday night.
Atlantic City (7-0) is No. 1 in The Press Elite 11. Middle Township (5-2) is ranked No. 4.
Guard Isiah Graves (12 points, eight rebounds, five assists) and forward Dennis White (19 points, eight rebounds) sparked Atlantic City's offense.
"We just played defense," Graves said. "We kept our composure. We just said, 'Guard your man as best you can.' "
Middle struggled for open shots. Panthers often appeared to be free but then Atlantic City defenders such as the 6-foot-2 Graves, the 6-6 White and 6-2 Dayshawn Reynolds would quickly close out to contest shots and passes.
Atlantic City sustained its defense throughout Middle's possession. The Panthers kept the ball for as many as 30 seconds on some occasions.
"We have depth and we're tall on the inside," Graves said. "We could take away their 3-point shots because we have shot blockers on the inside."
Middle coach Tom Feraco compared the Vikings to defense to national power St. Anthony of Jersey City. Middle lost at St. Anthony 45-32 on Dec. 22.
"They closed out on us better than St. Anthony," Feraco said of the Vikings. "They closed out faster."
Atlantic City coach Gene Allen called the Vikings defense a continuation of last season with one exception. Graves and White make the Vikings even tougher to score against.
"Last year they couldn't guard me," Allen said with a laugh, "and now they've committed themselves to playing defense. It just gives us a better look with their length."
Thursday's game was one of the most anticipated of the young season. The teams met in last season's CAL final with Atlantic City winning 40-37. Thursday's contest turned in Atlantic City's favor in the final two minutes of the first half.
Graves sank a 3-pointer with 20 seconds left in the second quarter and then stole the ball and passed to White for a one-handed breakaway dunk at the first half buzzer to give the Vikings a 28-23 lead.
"We came into the locker room with intensity," White said. "We took it into the second half."
Atlantic City wore Middle down in the second half. A 10-2 Vikings run turned a two-point lead into a 38-28 advantage with 3:03 left in the third quarter.
White scored twice on baskets in the lane, while Graves sank a driving layup and had two assists during the stretch.
White and Graves both came off the bench as role players last season. But this season both start. Allen called White the Vikings' most valuable player so far.
"I think he's catching a lot of people by surprise," Allen said of White, the team's most consistent offensive player with a 13-point average. "Soon he'll be on (opponent's) scouting reports, so we'll see."
The Vikings can fill up an opponent's scouting report. In addition to White and Graves, Jahleem Montague, a 6-8 senior, scored nine points and grabbed five rebounds, while 6-4 senior Ga-Briel Chandler finished with eight points and five rebounds.
Atlantic City's lead stretched to 22 points in the fourth quarter.
"We just have to really put this behind us because (Atlantic City) just might be that good," Feraco said.
Meanwhile, Atlantic City with its defense and patience on offense continues to play like it's March even though it's early January.
Contact Michael McGarry:
Middle Township 5 18 7 9-39
Atlantic City 8 20 15 15-58
MT-Shelton 3 3-4 10, Catanoso 1 2-4 4, Feraco 4 2-5 10, L. Greer 1 0-3 3, Moore 1 0-1 2, Cowan 3 2-2 10. Totals-13 9-19 39.
AC-Chandler 3 2-2 8, Reynolds 1 2-3 4, Montague 3 3-4 9, Graves 5 0-0 12, White 9 1-2 19, Thomas 2 0-0 5, Lowe 0 1-2 1. Totals-23 11-13 58.
3-pointers-Cowan (2), Shelton, L. Greer MT. Graves (2), Thomas AC.
Records-Middle Township 5-2; Atlantic City 7-0.