By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
BUENA VISTA — On Saturday night, Atlantic City had a chance to stake its claim as being the best team in South Jersey, and after Nah’sir “Flash” Morgan drove the baseline and threw down a dunk on the first possession of the second half to give the Vikings a 29-28 lead, it looked as though Atlantic City might do just that.
But St. Augustine Prep is a veteran team with a ton of talent, and the Hermits weren’t fazed. Marlon Hargis nailed a 3-pointer on Prep’s next possession to give the Hermits the lead for good at 31-29. Hargis exploded for a game-high 24 points, and senior point guard Austin Kennedy added 17 as the Hermits built a 49-41 lead early in the fourth quarter and eventually held off the Vikings, 64-56, to remain undefeated and the consensus No. 1 team in South Jersey.
“We were mentally ready. We’re an experienced team and we’ve been playing them for four years now. We know what they bring to the table, and they know what we bring to the table, so it’s always a good matchup,” Kennedy said. “We’ve, fortunately, been able to come out on top a few times, but we know we have to play them again later in the year. That will be a good game as well, and we’ll come ready.”
St. Augustine Prep improved to 9-0, and took over first place in the Cape-Atlantic League American Conference at 4-0. Atlantic City slipped to 6-3 overall and 2-1 in the conference, a game behind second-place Millville.
Earlier in the week, St. Augustine beat Holy Spirit but scored just 45 points and turned in a lackluster effort offensively. Following that game, coach Paul Rodio said it was the worst offensive performance he’s seen from a Hermits team in more than two decades. St. Augustine finished out the week with lopsided wins over Bridgeton and Middle Township, and looked much more inspired against Atlantic City.
“He got on us. It was a tough week. In the Holy Spirit game, we turned the ball over more than 20 times,” Hargis said. “We turned the ball over today, but I feel like we looked better. We’re not a polished team. There’s a lot we still have to work on, but if we just keep playing hard, we’ll be fine.”
“We definitely had to work on a few things after that game,” Kennedy added. “We just have to work on playing together and doing a better job with that. We’re still not a finished product, obviously, but we all played really hard and just spirited it out to get the ‘W.'”
“We were better. We’re not there yet, but these kids played their hearts out defensively. We’re not there yet. This was a really tough game, Atlantic City is good, but we played our hearts out. Against Holy Spirit, offensively we weren’t great. Tonight, we were better. We’re working toward that. We’re just not yet a finished product,” Rodio said. “I was happy. Our kids played hard so you have to give them credit. This is a group of kids, everybody is coming after them. We’re getting everybody’s best shot. We’ve been (one of the top teams) for a while and have an X on our back, and we’ve played through all that. Did we play perfect? No. Did we make mistakes? Sure. But, for the most part, they played hard.”
Star 6-foot-7 forward Justyn Mutts was limited to just six points offensively, but made a huge impact on defense, blocking seven shots and altering many more. He also finished with 11 rebounds. He helped limit Atlantic City’s front court of Nazim Derry to seven points and Ray Bethea to 10. Juanye Colon led the Vikings with 19 points, including a couple of big 3-pointers in the second half, and Morgan added 12, but St. Augustine was able to hold a steady lead throughout the fourth quarter by getting second-chance points, including a tip-in at the third-quarter buzzer by Nick Amechi that pushed the lead to 43-38.
“That’s been something we’ve been focusing on. In previous games, we haven’t been rebounding and haven’t been getting back on defense,” Hargis said. “If we’re not getting offensive rebounds and getting back on defense, that’s a problem. So, in the second half, we made it a priority to get on the glass and try to get some second-chance points.”
Rodio said Mutts’ defensive effort was one of the keys to the game.
“Mutts is the most underrated player in one respect, because he blocks shots, he alters shots, he changes shots — he does all that. He didn’t have a great offensive night tonight, but he’ll be alright,” Rodio said.
“There’s so much he does other than scoring and rebounding. He blocks shots — and not only just blocking shots, he alters shots and makes opponents try to do too much,” Kennedy said. “His defense is just ridiculous, no one can get by him. Not only on his side, but on the opposite side as well.”
Hargis said he made it a point to get more involved with the offense, knowing Atlantic City was going to focus on limiting Mutts’ looks at the basket.
“I was just trying to be aggressive. My teammates did a great job of getting me the ball and trusting me. We just played as a team. Today it was me, another game it might be Justyn or Austin. We just played hard and it ended up working out,” he said. “I just wanted to keep being aggressive. Once the first shot falls, you feel a lot better on the next one. I started out hot, and that’s fun.”
And it was nice to get a win in front of a capacity crowd on a Saturday night, Hargis said.
“It’s awesome,” he said. “Today we were definitely more pumped up before the game. Atlantic City is a great team and they have a great coach, but we came in with a game plan and we executed, and came out with the win.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN