By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
ATLANTIC CITY — Back in December, the Atlantic City High girls basketball team couldn’t get out of second gear. The Vikings lost four straight games after a blowout of Millville in the season opener, and looked lost.
Once the calendar flipped to January, however, Atlantic City has been going 90 miles-per-hour on an open highway, and nobody’s been able to catch up with the Vikings.
Winners of 18 straight games, the Atlantic City took down Middle Township at home on Wednesday night, 50-37, to punch its ticket to Saturday’s Cape-Atlantic League Tournament championship game against Mainland at noon at Egg Harbor Township High. Defending champion Mainland topped Wildwood Catholic Academy, 46-30, in the other semifinal — a game that featured a rematch of last year’s championship game.
At one point, Atlantic City led 37-18 and was running away with things before Middle rallied to at least make it interesting down the stretch. The Panthers closed to within eight, 40-32, with less than four minutes left when Hannah Cappelletti converted a four-point play followed by Jada Elston putting back her own miss. But that’s as close as Middle could get.
Instead of playing stall-ball, Atlantic City (19-4) kept up the offensive pressure and outscored Middle 10-5 down the stretch. The big basket came with 2:55 left when senior guard Sasha Lemons drained a 3-pointer from the right corner to push the Vikings’ lead to 43-32.
“Sasha has grown so much these past few years. Sometimes we have more confidence in her than she does,” said Atlantic City coach Jason Lantz. “Every time she shoots it, I think it’s going in, and when there is a big moment she makes big shots. The bigger the moment, the better she shoots. We’re very confident in her.”
Elston, who finished with a game-high 17 points, nailed a 3-pointer with 1:32 remaining to get Middle (19-8) within 46-37, but Atlantic City hit enough free throws down the stretch to ice the game.
“A lot of people were doubting us,” said Atlantic City senior guard Zashirah Jackson, who finished with three points, 10 rebounds and four assists. “I think a lot of people wanted to see Mainland vs. Middle on Saturday, and that really made us motivated. We don’t get the press and people don’t talk about us, but we’re giving them something to talk about.”
The Vikings got off to a bit of a slow start and led just 18-10 at halftime, but got a nice boost from freshman Taison Parker, who finished the game with nine points, four rebounds and two assists.
“Taison Parker has been giving us a big boost all season, and even though she’s a freshman she’s very mature, she listens, she processes and she does what we ask,” Lantz said.
The third quarter was a different story, however, as Atlantic City blitzed Middle with 19 points to carry a 37-16 lead into the fourth. Lemons finished with 11 points while Bridget Roach chipped in 10 points and five assists for Atlantic City. Quanirah Montague, the Vikings’ 6-foot-5 center, led the way with 15 points and eight rebounds.
On Saturday, the Vikings will be looking to get some revenge against Mainland, a team that beat them 40-28 in the second game of the season.
“My girls are fired up,” Lantz said. “This year in the league our names aren’t being called as much as we’d like them to be called in terms of being one of the top teams in the area, so we just want to keep earning things.”
“I’m looking forward to playing Mainland again. I’m happy. It took us a lot to get here. In the beginning of the season, we had a rough start. But we were tired of losing, and that was a wake-up call. It’s my last year, and it’s the last year for all the seniors. We want to go home with a trophy. We want to take it all,” Jackson said. “We don’t get this year back. I’ve been playing basketball with Quanirah and Sasha for awhile now, so we’re like, why not? We’re coming to take everything. I hope we win more, (on Saturday) and in states. We play to win.”
Jackson said she’ll no doubt be nervous to play in front of a big crown at EHT on Saturday, but she’s trying to enjoy the moment.
“I’ve seen that game from the stands; I know I’ll be nervous, but we’re just going to try to put that aside and come to win. We’re going to give it everything we have.”
What’s Next: No. 2 Atlantic City vs. No. 1 Mainland Regional for the CAL Tournament championship on Saturday at noon at Egg Harbor Township High.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays