By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Coming into the Battle By The Bay finale on Sunday, Atlantic City has lost two of its last three games, losing by 10 to St. Augustine Prep on Jan. 30 before scoring just 36 points in a loss to Sanford (Del.) on Friday night in the tournament opener. Vikings senior forward Ray Bethea Jr. said he spoke to his father after that loss and his father’s assessment was that his son wasn’t having any fun out on the court.
Bethea Jr. had plenty of fun against rival Pleasantville at Stockton University, blitzing the Greyhounds with seven 3-pointers and finishing with 46 points in a dominating, 72-56 victory by the Vikings. Bethea could easily have scored 50 points had he shot better than 5-of-11 from the free-throw line, but that was about the only knock on an otherwise spectacular performance.
“I kept thinking about it and that’s why I missed some of those free throws, but it’s good to get 46. I was just feeling it. I like the atmosphere, I was into it, and I was feeling my shot in the first half. I was just trying to have fun out there. I wanted to do it for my family, my dad especially. We had a talk last night and he told me it looked like I wasn’t having fun out there and I have to change my ways. This game, I came out and just wanted to have fun, play with confidence, and I was just feeling my shot today,” he said. “We just started attacking. In the first half it was kind of a slow game and we were passing back and forth, so I tried to talk to my team and tell them we had to penetrate and drive (the lane), and that’s what we started doing. It was fun out there, to see my dad happy, my mom, my friends, my brothers — it was fun and it was good to see everybody happy with my performance.”
“I gave him more shots,” Vikings coach Gene Allen said in explanation of Bethea’s best performance of the season so far. “We made a concerted effort, especially when he was making them early, I saw he was going good so we tried to do everything to build around him, and thank God it worked out for us.”
Bethea scored the Vikings’ first eight points, including a dunk off the opening tip.
“I just wanted to spark up the game. It was a packed environment, so I wanted to start off the game with a bang,” Bethea said. “We have to treat every game (like just another game) and we tried to treat this game like that because we had two losses (in the last three games). We just came in here with confidence and aggression, and the performance speaks for itself. I’ve played against most of those boys and it’s a fun game competing against friends, and just be out there to have fun.”
Senior guard Divine Anderson helped Pleasantville (12-7) stay in it, though, scoring 14 points in the first half as the Greyhounds were down just 28-26 at the break. Atlantic City (14-3) led 43-39 heading into the fourth quarter, but then went on a 9-1 run to start the fourth and put the game out of reach.
“That can be attributed to our on-the-ball defense, which gave us a couple of deflections and easy baskets, and then the game quickly changed,” Allen said. “I thought that Kayto Figueroa coming off the bench and guarding Sahmir (Jones), he did a great job on him and that was kind of reminiscent of what we normally do. He had great ball pressure, and without even scoring he affected the game, which is fantastic.”
Bethea went 17-of-24 from the field, including 7-of-12 from 3-point range, and added 11 rebounds and five steals in 32 minutes, and Nah’Sir “Flash” Morgan chipped in with 11 points, three rebounds and three blocked shots. Anderson led Pleasantville with 21 points and Sahmir Jones added 12, while Jacob Valeus chipped in with four points and 12 rebounds in one of the most intense basketball rivalries in South Jersey. The tournament was being played at Stockton this year because of damage to Atlantic City’s gym that was sustained during a winter storm in early January.
Allen said he knew Bethea was destined for a big game early on.
“I thought it was (possible) because he had 18 at half and was 6-for-9 from the field. When I saw that, I told him we needed to get more shots out of him, because the ball was barely touching the rim. I told him if he couldn’t get points from the outside, to go inside, but based on the way their zone was I thought we could attack the gaps and we got a couple of drives — especially from Flash — and that kind of opened up the game for us,” he said. “It’s very rewarding to be a part of something like this. Between both communities, it’s such a wonderful event and for the past 15 years I’ve been happy to be a part of it.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays