By Phil Anastasia
This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for St. Augustine.
It has become something much more than that for the Hermits.
That was clear on Friday night, when St. Augustine stunned Atlantic City 60-52 on the Vikings' home court in the nightcap of the first session of the 20th Battle by the Bay showcase.
Relying heavily on a precocious freshman and two unflappable sophomores, St. Augustine outplayed Atlantic City in a clash of Top 10 teams and Cape-Atlantic League rivals before a near-capacity crowd in the Vikings' cavernous gymnasium.
Freshman forward Justyn Mitts scored 13 with eight rebounds, sophomore guard Sa'eed Nelson added 12 points with four assists and sophomore forward Mike Vasturia added 11 points with eight rebounds for St. Augustine (13-1), the No. 8 team in The Inquirer Top 10.
"I said before the season we could win but I knew we needed to grow up," St. Augustine coach Paul Rodio said. "I saw we had talent. But it's one thing to run around and look good in July and August. It's something else to do it in front of 2,500 people with their (Atlantic City's) pride on the line."
Sophomore guard Lamar Thomas scored 20 for No. 2 Atlantic City (9-3).
The loss was the Vikings' first to a South Jersey opponent in almost two years. Atlantic City had won 39 in a row against local teams since a loss to Paul VI on Feb. 12, 2012.
"They wanted it more than us," Atlantic City coach Gene Allen said. "They were better than us. Rodio outcoached me."
Rodio said Mutts' performance was a "coming out party," and the freshman's game was punctuated by a resounding dunk that gave the Hermits a 50-45 lead with one minute, 48 seconds to play.
The 6-5 Mutts, who lives in Millville, said he was "nervous" and that he had never played before such a large crowd.
"It's a lot different than middle school," Mutts said.
Nelson and Vasturia came through with big plays in the fourth quarter, too. Nelson wowed the crowd with a drive and scoop layup for a 48-41 lead with 3:41 on the clock, and also made two free throws in the last minute.
Vasturia, who lives in Medford, scored six in the fourth quarter and made a pair of free throws at the 1:25 mark.
"This gives us a lot of momentum," Vasturia said of the win. "We're young but we've got good senior leaders in guys like Nate Segal and Brian Seward."
Although St. Augustine's younger players were key to the victory, the Hermits also got strong work from their veterans.
Senior forwards Nate Segal and Brian Seward combined for 18 points and 12 rebounds, and senior reserve Kevin Kennedy made perhaps the game's biggest shot -- a three-pointer that gave his team a 46-41 lead with 4:43 to play.
"It means a lot," Kennedy said. "Sometimes I get in there and I try to so whatever I can to help the team win. To hit that shot, it felt great."
Senior guard Isiah Graves scored 17 and senior forward Dennis White grabbed 11 rebounds for Atlantic City. But the Vikings weren't able to turn the game in their favor with their defensive pressure -- the tactic that has been key to their back-to-back Group 4 state titles.
"We didn't get the ball-pressure that we wanted," Allen said.
Atlantic City also was 12-for-20 from the foul line, with seven of the misses in the second half.
"I knew at some point foul shooting would come back to haunt us," Allen said.
By contrast, St. Augustine was 23-for-25 for the game, and 10-for-10 in the fourth quarter.
"This is a great win for this program," Rodio said.
St. Augustine 12 17 10 21 -- 60
Atlantic City 12 11 12 17 -- 52
SA:Sa'eed Nelson 12, Brian Seward 8, Nate Segal 10, Stephen Corbo 1, Mike Vasturia 11, Kevin Kennedy 5, Justyn Mitts 13.
AC: Isiah Graves 17, Dennis White 4, Tashad Reynolds 6, Jamir Prevard 5, Lamar Thomas 20.
-- Contact Phil Anastasia at firstname.lastname@example.org
-- Follow @PhilAnastasia on Twitter