By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
MAYS LANDING — When ACIT ripped off an 8-0 to start the second half and take a 29-15 lead over visiting Atlantic City on Wednesday night, RedHawks coach Jason Vander Ryk should have been able to sit back, relax and watch a blowout victory. But he’s faced the Vikings enough to know that no matter what the score is, they’re not going to go away.
The Vikings made a frenetic rally in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter, trimming an 11-point deficit down to just four points, but sophomores Tahirah Howard and Gia D’Alessandro nailed 3-of-4 free-throw attempts in the final 38 seconds to seal a 46-39 win.
“They came back. They’re a tough team, so this is a good win for us. It’s on and off with me. Sometimes I have good days. I just tried to play well for my team,” said Howard, a 5-foot-9 forward. “I thought it was going to be a tough game because (Atlantic City) does a lot of things well, so I just wanted to keep my team up, keep us aggressive and make sure we were ready. Sometimes it’s a lot of pressure being a sophomore, but I tried to hold it up and just make my foul shots, make good passes. It’s always good to get a win at home. It keeps us up and gives us motivation.”
In the end, a young Atlantic City team didn’t have an answer for Howard, who led all scorers with 24 points, including 15 in the second half.
“She gave us everything she had and hit some big shots in the fourth quarter, taking it to the hoop with the game on the line. She really stopped their momentum, which was huge. She knocked down some foul shots. She gave us that comfort at the end of the game, and we needed that,” Vander Ryk said of Howard. “The girls look to her in practice, in games, in the classroom, at lunch, in the hallways. She’s that type of person. She’s not afraid, and that’s the main thing. You can’t be afraid in that kind of situation. You just have to play basketball. She carried us the entire game.”
A free throw by Savanah Witmer and a bucket by Howard gave ACIT a 41-28 lead with 4:30 left, but Atlantic City responded with an 11-3 run to cut the lead to 43-39. Kadinah Harris-Hood hit a free throw and Madison Brestle stole the ensuing inbounds pass and was fouled. She hit 1-of-2 free throws, and Qiaje Conty stole another inbounds pass and was fouled. She connected on both of her free-throw attempts, and the four straight free throws shaved the RedHawks’ lead to just four points with 38 seconds left.
But a bucket by Howard and a free throw from D’Alessandro pushed the lead to 46-39, and guard Kayla Sykes snatched a rebound when D’Alessandro missed her second free-throw attempt, and ACIT was able to run out the final few seconds.
“You can’t force sophomores to be seniors, as much as you want them to play like that. You have to go through those growing pains. They never quit when things didn’t go their way. They could have hung their heads and let this one slip away, but they just kept fighting until it was over,” Vander Ryk said of his young squad. “I give Atlantic City all the credit in the world, they went on a run in the fourth quarter, but at the end of the day we had more points than they did, and we’ll take the win.”
The win was big for ACIT, which improved to 6-3 overall and 3-0 in the Cape-Atlantic League’s American Conference, giving the RedHawks sole possession of first place for the time being. Atlantic City dropped to 1-4 overall and 1-1 in the conference. Millville is just a half-game behind ACIT in the conference race.
Atlantic City got 13 point from Conty, eight from Alexandra Fader, and five each from Brestle, Harris-Hood and Katie Master. Vander Ryk said he expected exactly the type of effort the Vikings brought, and was glad his team was able to withstand Atlantic City’s frantic run at the end of the game.
“We knew they were going to play 32 minutes. We knew a 14-point lead wasn’t going to be enough. I’m never comfortable until I’m talking (to the media) after the game,” he said. “I told them to just calm down, play our game, get the ball in bounds and hit our foul shots. Did they do all that? Yes, but Atlantic City is a good team and they have a lot of shooters. They have everything you want in a team. It’s easier said than done. It was a great fight, it was good to watch and it was fun to coach. I’m very proud of my team. We only have one senior and you can’t force experience. I understood coming into this season we were going to have growing pains, that’s just part of it.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays