By DAVE O’SULLIVAN

Staff Writer

EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Atlantic County Institute of Technology — the No. 11 seed in the South Jersey Group 4 playoffs — came in with a plan on Thursday night for how to hang with, and potentially beat, No. 3 Egg Harbor Township.

And the plan was working well for nearly three full quarters. But you need more than a plan to beat a talented, athletic team like the Eagles.

Atlantic Tech was down just 38-35 after point guard Nasir Tucker — one of five seniors in the RedHawks’ starting lineup — converted a layup off a steal with less than three minutes to go in the third quarter. Byron Nelson’s squad was on the verge of a second straight upset after his team knocked off No. 6 Cherokee in the opening round. But, like he said, EHT has five guys who can flat-out ball.

In what seemed like the blink of an eye Egg Harbor Township was up, 45-35, and the game was essentially over. The Eagles went into stall mode in the fourth quarter and cruised to a 64-47 victory that puts them into Saturday’s sectional semifinal, where they will host No. 7 Cherry Hill East, a 62-56 upset winner over second-seeded Toms River North. Three of the top for seeds are still alive, as the other semifinal will feature No. 4 Eastern traveling to No. 1 Lenape on Saturday.

Egg Harbor Township guard Jay-Nelly Reyes drives in for two of his 14 points in the Eagles’ state playoff win over Atlantic Tech. (South Jersey Glory Days photo/Sully)

“In the first half we came out slow. We didn’t have a lot of energy coming into this game, but we should have,” said EHT senior guard Jay-Nelly Reyes, who led the way with 14 points, five rebounds and four steals. “We underestimated our opponent and they came out strong, but in the second half we turned it up a little bit, played better defense, made some shots early and ran away with it.”

When Atlantic Tech (20-7) got to within three, at 38-35, EHT (25-5) responded with a 7-0 run that included a conventional three-point play from Jamil Wilkins, a bucket in transition by speedy point guard D.J. Germann and a feed from Wilkins to Reyes off a steal for an easy layup that gave the Eagles a suddenly commanding 45-35 lead. The dagger came with four seconds left in the third quarter when Jake Karp found a wide-open Christian Rando in the left corner. Rando — the hero of EHT’s Cape-Atlantic League Tournament championship win on Saturday — calmly drained a 3-pointer that pushed the Eagles’ lead to 48-37 heading into the fourth quarter.  

“That’s our shooter right there,” Reyes said. “He practices those shots every day and we play shot-for-shot after practice every day. That’s what he does. That’s what he’s here for.”

“We started to make some ‘me’ plays and started forgetting about the game plan. They hit a big shot in the corner and that was a mental mistake on our part,” coach Nelson said. “We pride ourselves on our defense and I thought we played a helluva defense in the first half. We just had some mental mistakes and couldn’t make shots. But they are a good team, I have to give it to them. They have five guys who can hoop, and you can’t knock that. We played the best we could.”

Rando nailed another three from the same spot on EHT’s first possession of the fourth quarter as the lead swelled to 51-37, and from there it was academic. EHT outscored Atlantic Tech 21-13 in that decisive third quarter, and the Eagles’ defense allowed just 10 points in the fourth quarter.  

Atlantic Tech point guard Nasir Tucker brings the ball up the court during the first half. (South Jersey Glory Days photo/Sully)

“We talked (at halftime) about defense because we knew our offense was going to come. You can’t not play defense,” Reyes said. “Sometimes the shots won’t fall, but you can always play defense. Our defense, and our ability to turn that into offense — we came out and turned a 10-point lead into a 20-point lead, and just kept it and made our free throws at the end of the game.”

It was a tough end for Atlantic Tech seniors Desi Stroud, Tucker, Jameil Quintana, Jayden Lopez and Zahir Davis-Roberts, and they made it tough on EHT throughout much of the game, but Reyes said the Eagles’ seniors are playing with the same kind of passion to try to keep their high school careers alive.  

“We’re doing the same thing, we’re playing with five seniors who are trying to win a state title,” he said. “We all play together and have such good chemistry. We never folded in the pressure moments. They kept coming back, but we kept our composure. We knew what skill we had and what we could do. We just did that to the best of our ability, and came out with the win.”

For the RedHawks, this was their best season ever, as they posted 20 wins and won a state playoff game for the first time in school history. Coach Nelson said he didn’t know exactly how he would feel when he stepped into the locker room after the loss.  

“I don’t know what I’m going to say. I know emotions are going to take over because I know how hard they’ve worked,” he said. “It’s going to be hard to look at their faces and be like, ‘this is it.’ But at the same time, I want to let them know that they made a helluva run and left a legacy. They made history.”

What’s Next: Atlantic Tech’s season is complete. No. 3 Egg Harbor Township hosts No. 7 Cherry Hill East on Saturday in the South Jersey Group 3 semifinals, time TBD.

Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sullyglorydays@gmail.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays