HAMMONTON — The Atlantic City High School boys basketball team faced its worst-case scenario for just a minute Tuesday night.
A motivated Holy Spirit took to the court determined not to lose to the Vikings three times in one season. Spirit scored the first two baskets of the game.
The Spartans wouldn’t score again for a little more than 11 minutes.
Atlantic City dominated with defense and beat Spirit 47-35 in a Cape-Atlantic League semifinal at Hammonton. The top-seeded Vikings (22-1) will meet second-seeded Middle Township for the title 2 p.m. Saturday at Richard Stockton College in Galloway Township.
“We came out with a lot of tempo just like they did,” Atlantic City guard Isiah Graves said. “They came to play, and we came to play more aggressively.”
Atlantic City’s tenacious man-to-man defense sparked a 15-0 Vikings run to end the first quarter. Holy Spirit never challenged the Vikings after that.
“We just feed off each other,” Vikings center Jahleem Montague said, “plus our coach (Gene Allen) is crazy. He gives us energy on top of that. We have that intensity going into every game.”
Atlantic City also dominated in the lane behind the 6-foot-8 Montague (14 points, 12 rebounds) and 6-5 Dennis White (16 points, seven rebounds). White caused the Atlantic City fans to roar with three dunks in the first half.
Tuesday was the third time Spirit and Atlantic City played this season. The Vikings won the first two matchups — 44-41 and 54-47. Both those contests were decided in the final minute.
The speculation before Tuesday’s game was that it would be tough for Atlantic City to beat the talented Spartans three times in one season.
Fifth-seeded Spirit (15-10) started fast as John Midi and Leon Daniels scored the first two baskets of the game.
“We started exactly how we wanted to,” Spirit coach Jamie Gillespie said. “We couldn’t have drawn it up any better.”
But the Vikings then turned the momentum and the score in their favor with defense.
Graves scored off a steal and another Holy Spirit turnover to give the Vikings a 6-4 lead they never relinquished.
White continued the run with a fast-break dunk and a putback basket. Montague then scored after a steal and White followed that basket with another dunk.
The Vikings led 15-4 after the first quarter. After Spirit’s two baskets in the game’s first minute, the Spartans didn’t score again until Jordan Taylor grabbed an offensive rebound and scored with 3 minutes, 50 seconds left in the first half. Atlantic City led by 17 in the second quarter and by as many as 21 in the fourth quarter.
Not one Holy Spirit player could dribble past their Atlantic City defender.
“You can’t beat them dribbling the ball,” Gillespie said. “We turned it into a dribbling game. It needed to be a pass-and-screen game. There pressure wore on us.”
After some lackluster regular season efforts, Atlantic City is playing with the same determination, intensity and poise it showed in winning the state Group IV title last season.
Montague, a senior, epitomizes the Vikings’ effort.
He struggled with a knee injury during the season but is averaging 15 points in the last three games. Those contests have been two CAL tournament wins and a victory over Paulsboro, the No. 2 team in The Press Elite 11.
“It’s playoff time,” Montague said. “It’s my last year. I want to do something.”
Contact Michael McGarry:
Holy Spirit 4 6 6 19—35
Atlantic City 15 12 6 14—47
HS—Daniels 2 4-5 8, Saintel 0 0-0 0, Midi 1 0-0 2, Middleton 0 0-0 0, Moore 2 1-4 6, Taylor 4 2-4 10, Rassman 1 0-0 2, Marczyk 1 1-2 4, Jonres 1 0-0 3. Totals—12 8-16 35
AC—Graves 2 0-0 4, White 8 0-0 16, D. Reynolds 0 1-2 1, Montague 6 2-2 14, Chandler 4 0-2 8, T. Reynolds 0 1-2 1, Toores 0 1-2 1, Chase 1 0-0 2. Totals—21 5-12 47
3-pointers—HS. Marczyk, Jones
Records—Holy Spirit 15-10; Atlantic City 22-1.