Gene Allen knows that his Atlantic City basketball team will shoot poorly in some games.
He knows that his players will commit too many turnovers, miss too many free throws, and fail to executive their offensive sets.
But the coach of last season's Group 4 state champion and this season's No. 1 team in The Inquirer's South Jersey rankings can count on one thing, game in and game out: defense.
"It's nice to have that in your back pocket," Allen said after Atlantic City beat Paulsboro, 58-48, in a highly anticipated clash of the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the rankings in front of a capacity-plus crowd Sunday at Cherry Hill East.
Defense and big-game moxie made the difference for Atlantic City (21-1). The Vikings' full-court, man-to-man pressure forced the Red Raiders into 41 turnovers.
"You look at 41 turnovers, and you lose by 10, and you kind of kick yourself," Paulsboro coach Sean Collins said. "You think if we just would have protected the ball a little bit - just a little bit - we might have been in position at the end of the game where these kids have been so many times before and closed it out."
Senior forward Xavier Lundy scored 16 and senior center Julien Davenport added 11 for second-ranked Paulsboro (22-2). The loss was the Red Raiders' first in their last 53 games against South Jersey opponents.
Junior guard Isiah Graves scored 16 and senior center Jah-leem Montague added 12 for Atlantic City.
"We knew it was No. 1 against No. 2 and we had to defend our No. 1 spot," Graves said.
Lundy's three-pointer jumper from deep on the left side pulled Paulsboro within 49-46 with 3 minutes, 22 seconds remaining in the game and brought a huge roar from the Red Raiders' fans, who filled both levels of seats on both sides of the court.
But Atlantic City, which won a number of close games on its way to the Cape-Atlantic League, South Jersey Group 4, and state Group 4 titles last season, responded in championship fashion.
Dennis White scored off a nice feed from Djza Chase. After another Paulsboro turnover, Graves made a free throw for a 52-46 lead and missed the second.
But the 6-foot-8 Montague slipped inside for a tip-in of the missed free throw for a 54-46 lead at the 1:25 mark.
"I think that was the backbreaker," Allen said.
Paulsboro was playing its second game in the showcase tournament in fewer than 24 hours. The Red Raiders had rallied from a 16-point deficit in the second half for a 71-61 victory over Camden in an emotional game in front of a capacity crowd Saturday night.
"Some fan from Camden told me they tenderized them for us," Allen said.
Collins admitted that his team probably felt the effects of its demanding weekend but made no excuses.
"We knew what we were doing when we made this schedule," Collins said. "It is what it is. We had all year to prepare for this weekend."
Atlantic City generated much of its offense off transition from its defense. Graves and senior guard DayShawn Reynolds (eight points) beat Paulsboro down the court for layups to help the Vikings build a lead as large as 36-24 midway through the third quarter.
"We don't see that much with our schedule," Collins said of the Vikings' physical man-to-man defense. "We knew it was coming. But we had a hard time with it at times."
The Red Raiders couldn't overcome their game-long rash of turnovers. Collins suspected tired legs might have been a factor in his team's inability to protect the basketball.
But both coaches knew that Atlantic City's defense had something to do with Paulsboro's ragged offense, too.
"We'll be happy winning, 2-0," Allen said. "I believe that and the kids believe that. We wanted to show what Atlantic City basketball was all about."
Atlantic City 13 11 16 18 - 58
Paulsboro 8 14 13 13 - 48
AC: Isiah Graves 16, Dennis White 6, Dayshawn Reynolds 8, Jah-leem Montague 12, Lamar Thomas 3, Djza Chase 7, Gabriel Chandler 6.
P: Brandon Hamilton 2, Derrick Burgess 7, Xavier Lundy 16, Keenan Williams 5, Theo Holloway 5, Saleem Little 2, Julien Davenport 11.
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