CHERRY HILL — Fans jammed into every corner of Cherry Hill East High School’s spacious gym Sunday afternoon.
That provided the perfect setting and motivation for the Atlantic City boys basketball team.
The Vikings forced 41 turnovers and beat Paulsboro 58-48 in a highly anticipated Cherry Hill East Invitational game. Atlantic City (21-1) is ranked No. 1 in The Press Elite 11. Paulsboro (21-2) is No. 2.
“We wanted the game bad,” said Atlantic City guard Isiah Graves, who scored 16 points and had four steals. “We had to prove that we were No. 1.”
Atlantic City, the defending state Group IV champion, seems to thrive on the atmosphere of a big game. The more people that are in the gym, the better the Vikings play.
“We have a lot of experience and a lot of poise,” Graves said. “But sometimes we kind of sleep on teams.”
The Vikings rattled Paulsboro with their man-to-man defense. Atlantic City converted many of Paulsboro’s turnovers into easy baskets.
Atlantic City’s defense is a big reason why the Vikings have won 42 of their last 45 games dating back to last season.
“There are going to be nights when you’re not going to shoot the ball well,” Vikings coach Gene Allen said. “You’re going to turn the ball over. But it comes down to the (defensive end). Our philosophy is, we can beat you 2-0. The kids believe it. That’s a heck of a card to have in your back pocket.”
Sunday’s game was one of the most anticipated of the season. Paulsboro is the favorite to win the state title in Group I, which is the state’s smallest enrollment group. Although the Red Raiders are a Group I school, they have the size and depth of a contender in Group IV (the largest enrollment group).
Paulsboro entered Sunday’s game coming off a 71-61 victory over Camden on Saturday night. Allen acknowledged the difficulty Paulsboro faced in playing back-to-back games.
“A Camden fan told me they tenderized (Paulsboro) for us,” Allen said with a laugh.
But Atlantic City controlled Sunday’s game with its defense.
Vikings 6-foot-8 center Jahleem Montague, who has been slowed by a knee injury this season, scored 12 points and grabbed seven rebounds. The Vikings needed Montague to play well against a Paulsboro team that featured 6-6 Xavier Lundy and 6-8 Julian Davenport.
“I knew I had to turn it up this game,” Montague said. “It’s more fun (to play against tall teams). It’s competition. That’s why I play basketball. I don’t like playing against people half my size. I like playing against people my height or bigger.
Atlantic City forward Dennis White slowed Lundy, who finished with 16 points. But the Temple-bound Lundy struggled for open shots, especially during the third quarter, when the Vikings took the lead for good.
Atlantic City also benefited from some heady play by senior guard Djza Chase, who came off the bench and penetrated the Paulsboro defense for seven points and four assists.
“Coach always tells me to attack, attack, attack,” Chase said.
Atlantic City began the second half with a 12-2 run that turned a two-point halftime lead into a 36-24 edge with 4 minutes, 18 seconds left in the third quarter.
Dayshawn Reynolds (eight points) and Dennis White grabbed offensive rebounds and scored during the run. Graves finished the spurt with a pair of baskets, including a driving layup down the lane.
Paulsboro never really recovered from that stretch. The Red Raiders never got closer than four points the rest of the way. Atlantic City pressured Paulsboro into a turnover each time the Red Raiders rallied.
“You can’t turn the ball over 41 times,” Paulsboro coach Sean Collins said. “I was surprised we were in it as much as we were. It makes you kick yourself. If you protect the ball just a little bit better, you would be in the game down to the last minute. But we knew (the Vikings’ defense) was coming and we certainly didn’t handle it.”
A Graves steal and layup put the Vikings up six with seven minutes to play. Graves sank 4-of-6 foul shots in the final 1:16 to clinch the victory.
Montague’s tip-in of a Graves missed free throw put the Vikings up eight with 1:25 left.
“That broke (Paulsboro’s) back,” Allen said.
The good news for the Vikings — a tam that thrives on big games — is that it’s getting to be the time of the year when every contest is a big one. Atlantic City’s next challenge comes at 7 p.m. Tuesday when it faces rival Holy Spirit in the Cape-Atlantic League semifinals at Hammonton.
Contact Michael McGarry:
Atlantic City 13 11 16 18—58
Paulsboro 8 14 13 13—48
AC—White 3 0-0 6, Chandler 3 0-0 6, Reynolds 4 0-0 8, Graves 6 4-6 16, Montague 5 2-4 12, Chase 3 1-2 7, Thomas 1 0-0 3. Totals—25 7-12 58.
P—Little 1 0-0 2, Williams 2 0-0 5, Davenport 4 3-5 11, Lundy 6 2-2 16, Holloway 2 1-2 5, Burgess 3 0-0 7, Hamilton 1 0-0 2. Totals—19 6-9 48.
3-pointers—Thomas AC; Lundy (2), Burgess, Little P.
Records—Atlantic City 21-1; Paulsboro 21-2.