ATLANTIC CITY — Lamar Thomas felt his heart beating quickly Wednesday night.
He probably wasn’t the only one connected to the Atlantic City High School boys basketball team with heart palpations.
“My heart was pounding,” the Vikings freshman said, “but I wasn’t going to let it stop me from doing what I do.”
Thomas sank two critical 3-pointers in the fourth quarter to help the Vikings survive a gutsy upset bid from Southern Regional. Top-seeded Atlantic City beat the eighth-seeded Rams 61-56 in a South Jersey Group IV quarterfinal. Atlantic City, the defending state Group IV champion, hosts fourth-seeded Toms River North in a semifinal at 7 p.m. Friday.
“This was our state final,” Southern coach Eric Fierro said. “We played (one of) the best teams in the state to a one-possession game in their gym. What a steppingstone for our program.”
Atlantic City (25-1) overcame a stellar effort from Southern’s Mike Gesicki, who scored 24 points, grabbed seven rebounds and blocked five shots. Gesicki drew roars from the Southern and Atlantic City fans with a pair of acrobatic two-handed dunks in the second half. Gesicki is also a standout receiver for the Rams’ football team.
“I knew him from football,” Atlantic City guard Dayshawn Reynolds said. “But I didn’t know he was like that, though.”
Southern (16-10) packed in a 2-3 zone and dared Atlantic City to shoot from the outside. The Vikings, who sometimes struggle from the perimeter, sank 8-of-15 3-pointers. Reynolds made 3-of-5 3-pointers to score a team-high 16 points.
“Every time a team goes on a run, we need to punch back,” Reynolds said. “It’s the playoffs. Every good team is going to go on a run.”
A Gesicki follow-up dunk cut Atlantic City’s lead to one with a little more than a minute left in the game. After two Isiah Graves foul shots gave Atlantic City a 59-56 lead with 1 minute, 9 seconds left, Southern had the ball twice with a chance to tie.
On the first possession, Gesicki missed on a baseline drive and Atlantic City grabbed the rebound.
On the second possession, Graves blocked a Southern 3-point shot with less than 15 seconds left.
Southern appeared headed in the third quarter for one of the biggest wins in school history. The Rams began the second half with a 12-0 run to take a 31-28 lead with 5:24 left in the third quarter.
But Reynolds immediate sank a 3-pointer to tie the game.
“You want to stop time (when you have the lead) because you know the (Atlantic City) wave is coming,” Fierro said.
Southern would take two more leads. Each time the Vikings answered with a 3-pointer — the first from Ga-briel Chandler and the second from Reynolds.
The Vikings led by five after three quarters.
“They hit us with their best punch, but we still came out of the quarter with a lead,” Atlantic City coach Gene Allen said. “I felt good about that.”
But Atlantic City still couldn’t shake Southern in the final eight minutes.
Southern fans roared with each basket as they hoped for the upset. Meanwhile, Atlantic City fans, who were quiet in the first half, chanted defense with gusto.
Thomas’ two 3-pointers and two foul shots helped put Atlantic City up 57-50 with 2:28 left.
“I have confidence in my shot,” Thomas said. “I made my first one and that was that.”
But the Vikings were sloppy with the ball in the closing minutes and the turnovers gave Southern a chance for the win. Graves sank 4-of-7 free-throw attempts in the final 1:09 to help preserve the win.
Atlantic City left the court knowing it has to play crisper and cut down on turnovers if it’s to defend its state title.
But the Vikings can take consolation that Wednesday was the type of playoff game they routinely lost before the program broke through under Allen with two state titles and four South Jersey championships since 2005. Atlantic City’s playoff history before 2005 was one frustration.
“Every year we’ve made a run, we’ve had a game like this,” Allen said. “We feel fortunate to survive.”
Contact Michael McGarry:
Southern Regional 8 12 20 16 —56
Atlantic City 11 17 17 16—61
SR—Halliday 2 0-1 5, Logue 1 3-4 5, Policastro 5 4-4 15, Speziale 1 0-0 2, Gesicki 9 6-7 24, Romanoff 2 0-0 5. Totals 20 13-16 56
AC—Chandler 2 0-0 6, Montague 4 3-4 11, Reynolds 6 1-3 16, Graves 2 6-9 10, Thomas 3 2-2 11, Chase 1 0-0 2. Totals 20 13-20 61
3-pointers—SR. Halliday, Policastro, Romanoff; AC. Reynolds (3), Thomas (3), Chandler (2)
Records—Southern Regional 16-10; Atlantic City 25-1