By Phil Anastasia
Atlantic City hasn't become a great basketball program because the Vikings play great defense.
The Vikings play great defense because they've become a great basketball program.
That's not just semantics. The Vikings' sensational defense -- which was on glorious display in Wednesday night's 51-49 victory over East Brunswick in the Group 4 state semifinals -- is a result of coaching, chemistry and commitment.
"We've got the best coach in the world," Atlantic City junior guard Isiah Graves said, referring to the bespectacled and unassuming Gene Allen.
Graves' eyes were puffy and red as he stood in the locker room at Egg Harbor Township and recounted the emotional toll of one of the most impressive victories in Atlantic City basketball history.
Moments earlier, Graves was crying "tears of joy" after the Vikings completed an amazing comeback from a 14-point deficit to the supremely talented and accomplished Central Jersey champions.
Graves said Allen "yells at me a lot when I make bad plays" but that he considered the coach to be a father figure to the athletes on the team.
"We're a family," Graves said. "We play video games together, we talk basketball, we're always together."
You hear that a lot from a lot of players on a lot of different teams. And a lot of times it's just talk -- platitudes from guys who go to the same school and wear the same uniform, attend the same practices and listen to the same coach.
But one of the best things about team sports is when that family stuff is more than talk, when these players and coaches are so responsible to each other that they simply refuse to let each other down.
Atlantic City senior center Jah-leem Montague described it like this: "It's having the back of the guy next to you and knowing he has your back."
That trust might be the most valuable commodity in team sports. It builds a "band of brothers" camaraderie and a climate of confidence that, Allen said, can inspire a team to perform "outside its capabilities."
That's Atlantic City.
These guys are good athletes and tough kids. But there's no star player, nobody with obvious Division I-caliber basketball skills -- and there wasn't last season, either.
And yet the Vikings are 49-3 in their last 52 games. They are an astounding 17-1 in elimination games in the Cape Atlantic League and state Group 4 tournaments over the last two seasons.
They are a win Sunday over Linden at Rutgers away from becoming the first South Jersey team to capture back-to-back Group 4 state titles since Shawnee in 1995 and 1996.
"There's just something about this group," Allen said after the victory over East Brunswick.
There's something about the coach, too, and his assistants and the air of accountability and responsibility and unselfishness and diligence that has turned the Vikings into the best basketball team in South Jersey.
That stuff manifests itself in two ways in this sport. At the offensive end, it's sharing the basketball, making the extra pass.
That's Atlantic City.
At the defensive end, it's digging down with a fierce determination that contests every dribble, every pass and every shot -- for 94 feet and for 32 minutes.
That's Atlantic City, most of all.
Contact Phil Anastasia at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @PhilAnastasia on Twitter.