After the game, Jesse Barbera looked flush.
He had to sit down while he answered questions from reporters.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever felt quite like this,” he said. “When the game ended, I almost felt like I was going to pass out.”
All of the emotion he held in check during a wild four quarters — the angst, the nerves, the exhaustion — was pouring out of him.
Just minutes earlier — as he led his Eastern boys’ basketball team to a 66-57 win over visiting Atlantic City Saturday afternoon — Barbera was stoic. He countered every haymaker Atlantic City threw at him with little visible emotion.
It wasn’t until after the game, sitting in the front row of his home bleachers, that it was clear what the game really meant to him.
“We’ve been looking forward to this game all season. They knocked us out in the playoffs last year,” Barbera said. “It’s a redemption game against a great program. It’s a good feeling to get this win.”
Barbera led the Vikings with 22 points, including going 12 for 12 from the foul line — 6 for 6 in the fourth quarter. Troy Edwards chipped in 12 points. Ryan Edwards scored 10, and Onye Okoro recorded 9 points and 6 rebounds.
Playing without point guard Nazim Derry, away on a college visit, Atlantic City, which looked lost for much of the first half, was led by junior guard Ray Bethea. He generated 25 points, 4 assists and 3 blocks.
Bethea scored 19 of his points in the second half during a frantic comeback attempt.
There were moments when Bethea appeared to have taken over the game, to have swung momentum entirely in his team’s favor.
But each time someone on Eastern responded, cutting down the emotion on the visiting sideline.
It was the antidote to Bethea’s elite athleticism. The Vikings were workmanlike. They kept playing their roles.
“When you’re playing Atlantic City, you have an unbelievable respect for their program and the history that’s there,” said Eastern coach Kevin Crawford. “In a game like this, you’re not really playing basketball. It’s a street fight. And that’s what we were telling them. We had to answer every punch they threw.
“And I think our kids were not intimidated.”
Eastern (7-3) jumped out to a 13-2 lead to start the game, and Atlantic City never led at any point.
The start was a microcosm of the issues that plagued Atlantic City throughout: sloppy play and a general sense of confusion on both ends.
Derry’s absence was clearly felt. But the team didn’t want to use it as an excuse afterward.
“We weren’t ready to play,” Bethea said. “The reason we started slow is because we weren’t awake.”
While Atlantic City (6-1) battled its own mistakes for much of the game, the team was within two possessions for much of the fourth quarter. Bethea found a wide-open Ramon Rodriguez (19 points) for a corner three and then followed up with a layup on the ensuing possession to make the score 59-57 with 1 minute, 25 seconds to play.
Eastern kept Atlantic City at arms length the rest of they way by making its free throws. Over four quarters, Eastern made 22 of 24.
And the game was put away when Barbera came up with a steal off an inbounds pass with 35 seconds left. Okoro put back Barbera’s missed layup in transition to make the score 62-57 with 40 seconds left. Barbera hit four more free throws, and the Eastern defense was smothering the rest of the way.
It was indicative of a game in which a number of unlikely heroes stepped up for Eastern. In the third quarter, it was Ryan Ems. Atlantic City had gone on a 9-2 run to make the score 36-32 with 2:20 left in the period. But Ems, a physical junior center, bulled his way to seven points in the paint over the final 2:20. And Eastern ended the period up by nine. It was another example of Eastern answering a shot from Atlantic City, another player doing his job.
“We haven’t had a signature win around here in a while,” Crawford said. “But this win is right up there.”
Atlantic City 16 6 16 19 — 57
Eastern 18 13 16 19 — 66
AC: Nah’Sir Morgan 10, Ramon Rodriguez 19, Ray Bethea 25, Zaire Montague 2, Anihijar Cooke 1.
E: Andrew Heck 3, Ryan Ems 10, Troy Edwards 12, Jesse Barbera 22, Onye Okoro 9, Xavier Pina 9, Jack Winsett 1.