By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
ABSECON — The Atlantic City High girls basketball team came into the 2022-2023 season with some high expectations. The Vikings returned three starters, including senior Quanirah Montague — a 6-foot-5 center and Mississippi State University recruit. A.C. also had dynamic senior point guard Sasha Lemons, and all looked good after a blowout win over Millville in the season opener.
But then the wheels came off. Atlantic City lost three straight games, two of which weren’t really even close. The Vikings came into this weekend’s Seagull Classic at Holy Spirit High in desperate need of a win. They got it in the form of a confidence-building 64-53 win over the hosts that saw the Vikings repel several Holy Spirit comeback attempts in the second half.
The Spartans — which came into Friday night’s game with just one loss — kept hitting big 3-pointers to keep Atlantic City from running away with a huge win, and when Kira Murray drained a three with two minutes left, Holy Spirit trailed 54-47 and seemed poised to make a run in the final 100 seconds. But moments later Montague nailed two free throws to push the lead back out to 56-47 and Spirit never got within nine points again.
“Every game you need, but we had not been playing well. So it was good to see them come together as a group, play a complete game, and finish one. We needed it, definitely,” said Atlantic City coach Jason Lantz. “We slowed down a little bit. We rush a lot of times. (Early on) with Montague, a lot of girls were deferring to her because she’s such a talent, and they weren’t looking for their own shots. So a lot of times when she was double- and triple-teamed the other girls didn’t take that opportunity to make plays, but today they were doing that.
“Everything is a step forward and we’re just working to get better.”
The Vikings (2-3, 2-1 Cape-Atlantic League American) led just 9-6 after the first quarter but used their signature pressure defense to jump out to a 27-15 lead by halftime. A big key to their first-half success was the play of Lemons, who has taken it upon herself to show her younger teammates the type of effort a varsity season demands each and every day.
“Holy Spirit tested us. They started throwing punches, but we started throwing punches back. That’s what the game is all about. It’s about who works the hardest. You have to out-work your opponent,” she said. “We’re a totally different team. We’ve been working hard for this. We want to get somewhere. We want to win a ring in states. We started working harder. In December I guess we thought we had a lot of talent, but we weren’t executing with that talent. Now, we’re learning each other even more and the team chemistry is there, and we’re executing.”
Lemons said the three-game losing streak after the season-opening win over Millville showed her team that nothing is going to be handed to them and they had to rededicate themselves to the grind if they wanted to make something of this season.
“There has been so much improvement (from the young players). Everyone has had to earn their spot. To get minutes we have to push each other at practice,” Lemons, who finished with 14 points, explained. “If we’re not pushing each other, the other person that is getting at you is going to take your minutes. It’s really about effort and enthusiasm. You have to stay locked in. If you’re not locked in, then the next person gets their chance.”
“Sasha is an old-school player. She has a certain fire to her that you can’t teach, you just have to have that,” Lantz said. “She’s grown up a lot over the last four years. She knows how to talk to each player differently and we feed off her leadership.”
A couple players who have gotten their chance are sophomore twin sisters Bridget and Eileen Roach, a pair of 5-foot-6 guards. Eileen had the best game of her young career, finishing with 12 points, and Bridget was a key factor on the defensive end against Holy Spirit’s sharp-shooting guards.
In the third quarter, Holy Spirit (7-2, 3-1 CAL American) climbed back to within 34-21 on a three from Murray, but Lemons came up with a big 3-pointer that stretched Atlantic City’s lead out to 37-21. Sophomore Alexis Gormley then scored in the post to push the lead out to 39-21, forcing Spirit to call a timeout. It didn’t help, as Atlantic City got big baskets from Zashirah Jackson and Eileen Roach to carry a 46-31 lead into the fourth quarter. Holy Spirit didn’t help itself by missing 18 free throws in the game.
Montague had another typically strong night for Atlantic City, finishing with 18 points, 12 rebounds and four blocked shots, and freshman Taison Parker contributed nine points. Sabrina Little led Holy Spirit with 16 points and five rebounds while freshman Lauren Cella added 10 points. Murray finished with nine points and Reilly Barnes, a freshman, added six.
Atlantic City will look to get a winning streak going next week with games against Cedar Creek, Egg Harbor Township and ACIT.
“It’s important for us to start playing better,” Lemons said. “As upperclassmen on this team, we have to encourage the underclassmen to go hard, stay locked in, stuff like that.”
What’s Next: Atlantic City travels to Cedar Creek on Monday at 5:30 p.m. Holy Spirit travels to Hammonton on Wednesday at 5:30 p.m.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays