The Atlantic City and East Brunswick high school boys basketball teams will meet tonight in a game that seemed inevitable since December

The teams tipoff at 6 p.m. at Egg Harbor Township in a state Group IV semifinal. The winner advances to the state final Sunday at Rutgers University.

Atlantic City (27-1) is the defending state champion and the South Jersey Group IV winner. East Brunswick (26-3) is the Central Jersey Group IV champion.

Both teams were favored to win their sectional championships and reach the state semifinals.

“They’ve been in the back of our minds,” Atlantic City coach Gene Allen said of East Brunswick. “We thought if we were fortunate to get out of South Jersey, we would definitely have to meet them to get to Rutgers. So here it is now.”

Atlantic City came into the season with a high profile because it won the state title last year. The Vikings started this season No. 1 in The Press Elite 11 — a spot they’ve held since opening night.

East Brunswick became a team to watch on opening night when it beat St. Joseph-Metuchen 58-54. St. Joe, the defending state Non-Public A champion, beat St. Augustine Prep 80-39 in the South Jersey Non-Public A semifinals last Saturday.

East Brunswick played St. Joe twice more after opening night — winning 52-45 in the regular season and losing 66-63 in double overtime in the Greater Middlesex County tournament final.

“They’re very good,” Allen said of East Brunswick. “They have excellent guard play. They have good shooters. They play good defense. It’s going to be a big task.”

East Brunswick features 6-foot-3 senior forward Rob Ukawuba, a four-year starter who is headed to New Jersey Institute of Technology. East Brunswick junior point guard Amir Bell has verbally committed to Princeton.

Bell and Ukawuba often combine to run an effective pick-and-roll play. East Brunswick guard Dan Leung is solid outside shooter, a pesky defender and a surprisingly good rebounder, considering he is just 5-foot-8. Junior guard Gary Baumer is an accurate perimeter shooter and 6-5 center Jake Krantz rebounds, blocks shots and does plenty of little things — like setting effective screens — that don’t show up in the box score.

What makes Atlantic City tough to defend is any one of its starters is capable of leading the team in scoring. Dayshawn Reynolds, Jahleem Montague, Ga-briel Chandler and Dennis White all have led Atlantic City in scoring in the state tournament. Guard Isiah Graves has reached double figures in three of the four state tournament wins. Guard Dzja Chase and Tashad Reynolds provide ball handling and defense off the bench. Freshman Lamar Thomas came off the bench to sink key 3-pointers in tournament wins over Southern Regional and Lenape.

One of the keys to advancing in the state tournament is forgetting about the previous win and concentrating on the upcoming game.

The state semifinal can be a difficult game for some teams to get motivated for. They’ve just won a sectional championship and the state final looms ahead.

Atlantic City is 16-1 in its last 17 elimination games, counting the Cape-Atlantic League and state tournaments.

Allen said the Vikings didn’t do much celebrating after they beat Lenape 51-40 to win the South Jersey title Monday night.

“The first words out of my mouth (after Monday’s win) was that we have some unfinished business,” Allen said. “The kids understand that. I didn’t think it’s a tricky game at all. The kids know how good East Brunswick is. They’re dialed in.”

Contact Michael McGarry:

609-272-7185