By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
ATLANTIC CITY — What a difference a year makes.
The Atlantic City boys basketball team finished last season with just 10 wins, but after blitzing visiting Cherry Hill East in the third quarter on Tuesday night, the Vikings are once again South Jersey Group 4 champions. Atlantic City trailed, 24-21, at halftime, but senior Stephen Byard came to life in the third quarter, scoring 11 of his team-high 23 points as the Vikings raced to a 61-44 victory.
Atlantic City will take on South Brunswick, a 72-71 winner over Marlboro in the Central Jersey Group 4 title game, on Thursday at 5:30 p.m. at Egg Harbor Township High School in the state Group 4 semifinals.
The third-seeded Vikings (21-6) trailed 24-21 at halftime thanks to six made 3-pointers in the opening half by fourth-seeded Cherry Hill East, but Atlantic City battled back and tied the game at 26 early in the third quarter. That’s when senior Sharon Watson — who missed the past two seasons with off-the-court troubles — made two plays that turned the tide. He made a steal and layup, then stole a pass at midcourt on the Cougars’ next possession and nailed a 3-pointer that gave Atlantic City a 33-28 lead. Byard then converted a traditional three-point play off another steal, and the Vikings were rolling with a 36-28 lead.
With 1:40 left in the third quarter, Jayden Jones made a steal at midcourt and dribbled in for an apparent layup, but instead lofted the ball off the backboard for a vicious dunk by Byard, who was trailing the play. That made it 40-28, and effectively ended any comeback hopes the Cougars might have had.
“I feel so relieved right now because since Day One we’ve been working so hard to get to this point. I just felt like we had to work so hard, running in practice, playing defense — that’s all that matters, playing defense. I’m just so happy to be at this point. Coach (Gene) Allen has been on me so much, I just feel so accomplished right now,” Watson said. “After halftime, I had those two scores back-to-back and that changed the energy of the game. I felt like defense transitions into offense, and that’s what happened and we got the big ‘W’ today.”
“In the second half we had to move the ball inside and out, play better defense. I have a lot of confidence in my teammates to get the job done. Them finding me with the ball and having trust in me to finish,” said Byard, who scored 19 of his 23 points in the second half, including going 9-of-9 from the free-throw line. “This means a lot. I’ve never had this experience. This is amazing. We’ve been working hard, day and night, and the coaching staff did an amazing job helping us out.”
“I thought we kind of wore them down. I saw them at the end of the second quarter kind of tugging on their shorts. And we knew they weren’t that deep,” Atlantic City coach Gene Allen said. “I was upset because I thought we should have had more ball pressure in the first half, but we just continued to do what we do.”
Watson, who finished with 11 points, epitomized the type of adversity this version of the Atlantic City Vikings had to overcome. Just prior to last season, Allen — now the winningest coach in school history — was let go as head coach by the Board of Education, only to be rehired several weeks later after community uproar.
“I had some problems. I played my freshman year, but I feel so accomplished right now. People have been telling me I have a gift and I have some talent. The No. 1 thing is to play defense,” Watson said. “Coach told me to be patient because as soon as I get the ball I want to go 100 miles-per-hour. But he said to slow it down, keep it at my team’s pace and just play defense. I’ve been through some negative things but I’m trying to overcome that and be successful in positive ways.”
“I’m so happy for that kid. You root for a kid like that. He’s persevered and he’s come through. I was happy that on a stage like this he was able to show people what he can do,” Allen said. “This is very special. As you get older, you start to enjoy and appreciate things a lot. My first or second year, I thought this would be every year. But when you go through a situation like I did last year, you learn to appreciate nights like this, and I do. A lot of these kids played JV, as juniors, some of them, so for them to put it all together at the right time is really special.”
What’s next: Atlantic City vs. South Brunswick, Thursday, 5:30 p.m. at EHT High, Group 4 semifinals.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays