By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
MAYS LANDING — Two minutes into the second half on Thursday night, Cedar Creek forward Jeff Morano completed a traditional three-point play that put his Pirates up on host Atlantic Tech, 32-23.
Things weren’t looking good for the RedHawks. But senior Nasir Tucker’s fiery halftime speech to his teammates began to kick in after that, and Atlantic Tech went on a jaw-dropping 24-2 run to take command and cruise to a 55-39 win over Cedar Creek. The victory avenges one of just four losses for ACIT this season, as the Hawks lost by five at Cedar Creek back on Jan. 5.
Since then, Atlantic Tech has won seven of its last nine games and is nipping at the heels of first-place Millville in the Cape-Atlantic League American Conference race.
“This time, we had to show them that the first time we played them we came out flat, and we got cheated. This win helped us prove that we’re the better team,” said senior guard Jayden Lopez, who had several key baskets during that run that spanned most of the third quarter and into the fourth. “In the locker room (at halftime), Nasir Tucker told the whole team that we had to crash the boards and rebound the ball. In the first half, they were getting to all the loose balls, the 50-50 balls, and getting up more shots. In the second half, we proved it on the free-throw line, we were getting rebounds, everything.”
“I feel like we just worked hard. I had to yell at my guys inside the locker room (at halftime), honestly, because we’re in playoff mode now and we have to go into every game feeling that we have to win or go home. That’s how we’re trying to treat every game. For me, I’m trying to spark my guys. I want us to go all the way, so I’ll work as hard as I have to,” said Tucker, who scored 14 points and added 10 rebounds and seven assists. “We just talked. I had to yell because I was like, ‘we need to get this win!’ We can’t wait another game. Every team we play from now on we have to feel like we have to go through them (to win a championship).”
Lopez drilled a 3-pointer to get Atlantic Tech (13-4, 6-3 Cape-Atlantic League American) within 32-26, and after a Cedar Creek bucket the RedHawks stormed back to tie the game at 34 on a pair of layups from Tucker. Then Lopez grabbed a rebound, went coast-to-coast and scored to put Atlantic Tech up for good, 36-34. By the time the run was over the RedHawks led 47-34. The big key for the Hawks was crashing the boards and pushing the pace.
“We swung the momentum by sharing the ball, trusting in each other and working to get stop after stop (on defense). We had to be patient. Our coaches said that if we’re patient and get stops, the shots will come,” said Lopez, of Mays Landing.
“We pushed the ball,” added Tucker, a fellow Mays Landing resident. “Some of us are short — I’m short myself — but at the end of the day you just have to play with heart, that’s all you’ve got. If you play with heart, nobody can beat you.”
“We try to hang out hat on defense,” said RedHawks coach Byron Nelson. “Last year, (veteran South Jersey sports writer) Tom Williams did his rankings and he ranked us as the best defensive team in the league based on points per game. Now, we played some opponents that really weren’t that great and that helps that number, but I still think we’re a very good defensive team and we really hang our hat on that every day. We do all kinds of drills every day in practice and that showed in the second half.”
Tucker was electrifying during the run, grabbing offensive rebounds to keep possessions alive, adding a couple of steals (he finished with four) and running the fast break.
“It brings a lot of spark to us because when he gets going we all get going. He’s our floor general,” Lopez said of Tucker.
“He’s a kid who last year was his first year really playing varsity minutes, and coming into this year I told him, ‘look, you have to be our leader,’” Nelson said. “We have guys who want to lead but don’t know how, we have guys who aren’t really vocal who just want to go out there and do their thing. He’s really stepped up to that challenge and it’s showing in his play. He’s really carried us in a big way. He’s been our guy and I’m extremely proud of him.”
Lopez finished with 10 points, five rebounds and four assists while Desi Stroud added 12 points, four rebounds and a pair of assists for Atlantic Tech. Zaire Pilgrim led the way for Cedar Creek (9-11, 5-5 CAL American) with 11 points and Ryan Manning added 10.
Atlantic Tech is looking forward to a rematch against Millville on Tuesday. Earlier this month, the Thunderbolts beat the RedHawks 49-47.
“I feel like we’re in a good position right now because a lot of teams in the CAL are sleeping on us,” Lopez said. “Once we get to that higher level and play the higher ranked teams, they are going to be shook about how we come out and play as a team.”
What’s Next: Atlantic Tech hosts Vineland on Friday at 7 p.m. Cedar Creek hosts Atlantic City on Friday at 7 p.m.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays