A.C. rallies past East Brunswick, will face Linden for state title

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graves Mastt Strabuk/Atlantic City's Isiah Graves goes up for a shot against East Brunswick's Dan Leung. EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP - On a sloppy, stormy night outside, the Atlantic City High School boys basketball team took another hazardous inside route to their second straight state title game.

Overcoming a scary-looking injury to one of their star players, not to mention a double-digit first-half deficit, the gritty Vikings beat East Brunswick 51-49 in an NJSIAA Group IV state semifinal game at Egg Harbor Township High School on Wednesday.

The Vikings (28-1) will go for their second consecutive state title, and third in their history, against Linden (22-7) on Sunday, March 10, at Rutgers University at a time to be determined. Linden, the North 2 champion, beat Hackensack, 83-78, in overtime, in Wednesday’s other Group IV semifinal.

“I saw my team, everybody had their heads hanging low,” said junior guard Isiah Graves, who scored 10 of his game-high 17 points in the fourth quarter to lead the Vikings to their 18th straight victory. “I just looked deep down into my heart and said, ‘Nah, I can’t lose this game, not like this.’ I just came out with a lot of energy in that fourth quarter and made things happen.”

Graves and the Vikings responded to an injury suffered by senior guard Dayshawn Reynolds, who went down hard on his back going to the basket in a collision with an East Brunswick player at the start of the fourth quarter.

Reynolds stayed down on the court for a long time, writhing in pain as coach Gene Allen “conferred” with the referee about the no-foul call. When he finally went to the bench, the Vikings perked up.

“At that moment it stopped being a basketball game,” said center Jah-leem Montague. “He‘s my cousin and one of my best friends, and to see him go down like that just broke my heart. To see him get up was just a blessing.”

The game was also delayed momentarily when Reynolds’ mother, Seleema, fainted in the corner of the gymnasium and needed medical attention. Reynolds later returned to the game, and his mother was fine afterward.

Graves hit a 3-point shot to pull Atlantic City to within a point, then hit another field goal to give the Vikings their first lead of the game with 6:14 to play. Then, after East Brunswick’s Gary Baumer drilled a 3-pointer, Graves responded with another trey.

East Brunswick’s Rob Ukawuba restored a one-point lead for the Bears, but the Vikings responded again as Graves fed Montague for a slam.

East Brunswick's Dan Leung tied the game with a foul shot, but Graves had yet another answer at the other end, driving for a layup on a feed from Dennis White. He also picked up a technical foul on the play, his fifth personal, for taunting an East Brunswick defender with 1:53 left.

“I put most of that blame on me, because I should have held my emotions inside and not taken it out on their player,” said Graves. “I deserved that. I should never have gotten out of control there.”

It didn’t matter. Baumer missed one of two free throws, and Montague converted a three-point play after a great penetrating move and assist by Dzja Chase. The Vikings wrapped up the win at the foul line, as Montague, Chase and Tashad Reynolds all made free throws.

Atlantic City came out for the pre-game warm-ups wearing T-shirts that read: “Defense Wins Championships.” They’re right, of course, but for awhile it looked like they were talking about the wrong defense.

Central champion East Brunswick (26-4) used their quickness and a 1-3-1 zone to confound the Vikings, disrupting their passing lanes, forcing turnovers and clogging up the middle. The Bears took an early 11-2 lead and pushed the lead to 11 before Atlantic City started inching back by getting the ball inside to big men Montague and White.

Still, the Bears wouldn’t fold, hitting a trio of 3-pointers in the second quarter to push their lead to 14 before Atlantic City scored the last four points to get within 10 at the halftime break.

“They came out with a lot of energy, and that’s what we didn’t do,” Graves said. “In the second half, coach said we’ve got to pick it up. We talked amongst ourselves, and came out and played our hardest.”

The Vikings held East Brunswick to just four points for a nearly 15-minute stretch from the late second quarter to mid-fourth quarter. It was the second straight game they had fallen behind by double-digits in the first quarter.

“I hate to turn it on and turn it off like that,” said Reynolds, who indicated he would be ready to play on Sunday. “I’d rather be the one being chased than the other way around, but they pulled it through today after I went down. There’s nothing but fight in this team, no quit at all.”

reynolds Matt Strabuk/Atlantic City’s Dayshawn Reynolds drives past East Brunswick’s Gary Baumer in the Group IV state semifinal.
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