"We started playing defense," Atlantic City senior guard Kashawn Dunston said of the team's surge to the Cape-Atlantic League tournament title, the Group 4 state title, and the top spot in the Top 10.
Willingboro (27-3) dropped from No. 1 in the last ranking of the regular season to the No. 2 spot. The Chimeras won the first sectional title in the history of the program with an imposing 67-40 victory over Haddonfield in the South Jersey Group 2 final before falling to eventual Group 2 state champion Ewing in the state semifinals.
Paulsboro (30-1) finished in the No. 3 spot. Like Willingboro, Paulsboro did not lose to a team from South Jersey. The Red Raiders started 30-0, beating Group 4 powers Lenape and Rancocas Valley as well as then-No. 1 Paul VI.
Paulsboro won the South Jersey Group 1 title before losing to eventual state champion Asbury Park in the state semifinals.
Paul VI (26-4) ended at No. 4 after claiming sole possession of the Olympic National title and advancing to the Non-Public South A finals. The Eagles won 11 of their last 13 games, beating quality foes such as Bishop Eustace, Cherry Hill East, Holy Spirit, and Notre Dame in the season's final two weeks.
Bishop Eustace (23-6) took the No. 5 spot. The Crusaders beat Lenape, East Brunswick, Eastern, and St. Augustine after Jan. 31, and pushed eventual state champion St. Joseph of Metuchen to overtime in the Non-Public South A semifinals.
Eastern (24-4) is No. 6, edging No. 7 Cherry Hill East (21-9) based on the Vikings' Olympic American title. Both Eastern and Cherry Hill East lost to Atlantic City in the South Jersey Group 4 tournament.
Eastern's four losses were to Top 10 teams. Cherry Hill East reached the sectional finals for the first time in program history, beating Shawnee in the semifinals.
Shawnee (23-6) took the No. 8 spot after winning 12 of its final 14 games. The Renegades also won the Olympic Patriot title.
St. Augustine (22-5), which was No. 1 in the final ranking last season, ended in the No. 9 spot. The Hermits beat then-No. 1 Eastern on Feb. 11 and reached the Non-Public South A quarterfinals before falling to Bishop Eustace.
Lenape (19-9) finished at No. 10. The Indians beat Paul VI and Shawnee, split with Cherry Hill East, and took Atlantic City to overtime in the South Jersey Group 4 quarterfinals.
Absegami and Ewing also took Atlantic City to overtime in March, Eastern lost by two points, and Middletown North and Elizabeth built sizable second-half leads against the Vikings.
But Atlantic City found a way to win on each occasion, surging to just the second state title in the history of the program and the top of the mountain in the South Jersey rankings.
Contact Phil Anastasia at 856-779-3223, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @PhilAnastasia on Twitter. Read his blog, "Jersey Side Sports," at www.philly.com/jerseysidesports