By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Atlantic City seniors Madison Brestle, Alex Fader and Ciani Redd-Howard have spent the past four seasons working hard to help turn the Vikings into a contender in the Cape-Atlantic League. After Saturday’s 63-50 win over Mainland Regional at Stockton University, the Vikings aren’t just contenders anymore — they are champions.
Atlantic City, the No. 3 seed in the CAL Tournament, started the game with a 12-0 run, was able to get Mainland star senior Kylee Watson in serious foul trouble early in the second half, and outscored the fourth-seeded Mustangs 19-14 in the fourth quarter to capture its first league title since 2010.
“Our seniors represent exactly how I feel about our team. They are very underappreciated. They all play their role and they’re all significant,” said Atlantic City head coach Jason Lantz. “With Alex Fader, a lot of people don’t really speak about her, but her leadership on defense and the way she has people rotating — I know you guys don’t hear it on the sideline but she’s always telling people where to be. She’s committed to the team, she always guards one of the better players, she’s phenomenal. Madison Brestle, what can I say? She always gets underappreciated by everyone, but I’m here to say that little girl is an MVP for everywhere, anybody — she guards the best player, she never quits, and everybody who doesn’t talk about her, shame on you. And Ciani Redd-Howard, that’s my girl. She’s phenomenal, I love her. They all make me proud. I love all of them.”
“It’s indescribable. I don’t have words to say. We came this far and won when everyone doubted us,” said Redd-Howard, who had a tremendous game, scoring 22 points and adding seven rebounds and three assists while winning Tournament MVP honors.
“ll three of us seniors are really dedicated to basketball, so it’s really nice to have this championship under our belt. Now we’re looking forward to states and we have our eyes set on that,” Fader added.
The Vikings (19-7) raced out to a 12-0 lead, but a team with a McDonald’s All-American is never out of it, especially in the first quarter. Mainland (18-6) responded with a 9-0 run to pull to within three points on a traditional three-point play from sophomore Kaitlyn Boggs early in the second quarter. Senior Madi Hafetz nailed a three later in the quarter to pull the Mustangs within 15-12, but a three from Redd Howard gave Atlantic City a 20-14 lead, and the Vikings went into halftime up 29-20.
Watson, a University of Oregon commit who will be playing in the McDonald’s All-American game in April, picked up her fourth foul less than two minutes into the second half and had to head to the bench, but Mustangs coach Scott Betson was forced to bring her back in after Atlantic City built a 40-26 lead on the strength of Quan Cherry-Montague and Sanai Garrison-Macon. Those two combined for 31 points and 10 rebounds in the game.
Once Watson was inserted back into the lineup, though, she went on an 8-1 run all by herself to pull Mainland within 41-34.
“I think she’s a phenomenal player and the best is yet to come from her,” Lantz said of Watson, who has led Mainland to a CAL title (2018) and state championship (2019) and is her school’s all-time leading scorer. “I guarantee you, in the next two years — I know we’re talking about her now, but we’ll REALLY be talking about her in the next two years. Kudos to her, she’s phenomenal. I’m proud of my girls because they weren’t afraid. We competed, played hard and earned the championship.”
Atlantic City was simply too much, however, building back to a 10-point lead early in the fourth on a driving layup by Garrison-Macon. The Vikings never let Mainland get to within less than eight points the rest of the way.
“We like dogfights. Like I said Thursday (after the semifinal win over Ocean City), we’ve had so much adversity throughout the season, but at this point, adversity is turned into positives,” Redd-Howard said. “(Mainland) was better than Ocean City, so we knew we had to stay focused, play defense and rebound. Rebounding was the key, and once we rebounded we got out and scored.”
“This was the first time in our four years we’ve been able to make it to the CAL championship. The last time we were here was 2010, so we wanted to come out and show everyone who Atlantic City High School really is,” Fader added. “We were never the favored team any year, so it feels really good to come out and win the championship. During the season, we lost to some of the teams in the tournament, but as the season went on we really came together as a team and started playing really well.”
Atlantic City, champions of the CAL American, beat No. 6 ACIT, No. 2 Ocean City and fourth-seeded Mainland to win the title.
“It’s just commitment. Everybody is committed to being one,” said Lantz, a former assistant in the boys program under legendary coach Gene Allen. “On the boys side, we used to say ‘five is one.’ With my squad, we say ‘everybody is one.’ We’re all one team, we all work hard. If one player is playing great, everybody’s playing great. We just work together.”
Despite the four fouls, Watson still finished with 19 points and nine rebounds, and Hafetz added 12 points. Boggs and Cadence Fitzgerald combined for 15 points and 13 rebounds, but Atlantic City got huge contributions from Cherry-Montague (15 points, nine rebounds, five steals and three blocks), and Garrison-Macon (16 points, four assists, three steals.)
“It’s surreal. You don’t want to say anything until you hear the final buzzer because that’s when you know it’s over,” Fader said. “(Mainland) played really well, but it’s exciting to have this championship.”
Added Redd-Howard, “I don’t have words to describe this feeling. We won, and we’re the champions.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays