By GIUSEPPE UNGARO
GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — St. Augustine Prep coach Paul Rodio said his team currently is playing good basketball in spurts.
Fortunately for the Hermits, they had one more spurt left in them in the fourth quarter on Saturday to pull away from Atlantic City. St. Augustine, which trailed by as many as five points, outscored Atlantic City 22-10 in the final frame to win the Cape-Atlantic League championship, 62-53, at Stockton University.
It’s the third consecutive CAL title for the Hermits, who improved to 24-2. It is also the third time the Hermits got the best of the Vikings (20-6) this season.
“This is definitely huge, but we want more,” Prep center Justyn Mutts said. “We want more than this. We want a state championship and we want the (Tournament of Champions title). We want so much more. This is the smallest thing we can get. We want so much more.”
Atlantic City’s Ray Bethea, who led his team with 22 points and 11 rebounds, opened the scoring in the fourth quarter to five the Vikings a 45-40 lead.
The Hermits answered with a 6-0 run to take the lead with 5:58 remaining. The lead changed hands four more times before the Hermits put the game away in the final minutes.
“We had it, then we started rushing,” Bethea said. “I believe we were up five at one point. Then we started rushing, started panicking and going too fast. We started turning the ball over.”
The Vikings nearly tied the game at 52, but a missed layup turned into a quick bucket for Prep’s Austin Kennedy, who led the Hermits with 22 points. The Vikings threw the ball away on the ensuing possession, leading to a monster slam by the Hermits’ Marlon Hargis, who finished with 14 points.
The dunk gave the Hermits a 56-50 lead, but Nazim Moore-Derry sank a 3-pointer to cut the lead to three. The Hermits ended the final 1:12 of the game on a 6-0 run, including foul shots by Kennedy and Walter Hargis, and a dunk by Travis Stoll.
“Unfortunately, right now we are playing in spurts,” Rodio said. “Mainland, the other night (in the semifinals), we didn’t play great and in the second half we had great spurt. Tonight, not that we didn’t play well, we played sloppy and they played very well for most of it. Then we had that one spurt defensively.”
“I thought it was us speeding ourselves up. We didn’t have to do that,” Atlantic City coach Gene Allen said. “We missed, they go down and scored and we should have inbounded the ball and worked a set. I think we kind of helped them in the fact we tried to speed up when it wasn’t necessary.”
Bethea and David Aikens, who had 17 points, did what they could in the opening half to keep the Vikings within striking distance. The duo combined to score 28 of the team’s 30 first-half points to keep the Vikings within one, 31-30, at halftime.
Prep held the lead most of the opening quarter until Aiken scored with three seconds remaining for an 18-17 Atlantic City lead. Prep grabbed the advantage back early in the second quarter, gave it up for one possession on a Bethea 3-pointer, but ended the half with a one-point lead.
“We tried to keep it even, not let them blow us out,” said Bethea. “They have scorers. We tried to put the ball in the hoop as much as we could.”
Both teams have their eyes on a bigger prize in the upcoming state playoffs. The Hermits, the top seed in the Non-Public A South tournament, received a first-round bye, and won’t play until March 2 against the winner of No. 9 Paul VI vs. No. 8 Red Bank Catholic.
Atlantic City is No. 5 in the Group IV South Tournament with a first-round meeting against No. 12 Eastern on Feb. 27. The Vikings are the defending sectional champions and reached the Group 4 state championship a year ago.
“This was a good test. They are one of the best teams in New Jersey, especially South Jersey, and I believe if we can play with them I know we can play the teams on our playoff schedule,” Bethea said.
Contact Giuseppe Ungaro: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDgisepu
By GIUSEPPE UNGARO