EGG HARBOR TWP. - Colts Neck senior Lloyd Daniels said he had not seen a defense like the one Atlantic City threw at his Cougars Wednesday in the NJSIAA Group IV semifinals, but the Cougars have quickly acclimated to navigating uncharted territory.

Colts Neck took a lead into the fourth quarter and Daniels nearly orchestrated a last-minute comeback before the South Jersey Group IV champion Vikings pulled out a 55-50 win over the Cougars to reach the Group IV final for the fifth time in 12 years.

"They played a hell of a defense," Daniels said. "They got right up in us and we just couldn't execute enough in the fourth quarter, I guess. Their defense was great, though. We never played a defense like that in the Shore Conference."

Lloyd Daniels scored 23 points in Colts Neck's loss to Atlantic City on Wednesday. (Photo by Matt Manley)

Atlantic City trailed 42-35 with a little more than six minutes left in the game before embarking on a 9-0 run to seize a 44-42 lead with 3:51 left to play. Colts Neck junior Brendan Clarke - the hero in Monday's sectional final win at the buzzer over Freehold Township - scored in transition to pull the Cougars even at 44 to set up the final three-plus minutes.

The Vikings rattled off six consecutive points to go up 50-44, with sophomore Nahsir Morgan scoring on a pair of layups after senior Aishon Centino gave Atlantic City the 46-44 lead with a floater in the lane.

Senior Jordan deGroot knocked down two free throws with 1:04 left to chip two points off the Atlantic City lead and Daniels stole the ball in the backcourt and took the ball in for a layup that pulled Colts Neck within 50-48.

Sophomore Ray Bethea Jr. hit the first of two free throws with 46.2 seconds and after the Vikings corralled the rebound, Daniels stole the ball, took it the length of the court and scored as he was fouled to give his team a chance to pull even with the ensuing free throw.

"We knew if we wanted to come back, we had to execute on defense," Daniels said. "We went to a 1-3-1 fullcourt trap and tried to shake things up and we got a steal, came back and had a chance to tie it."

Daniels hit the ground hard on the foul and after remaining on the floor for a minute, he popped up and returned to the bench as Colts Neck used a timeout. After the timeout, Daniels missed the potential tying free throw with 38.3 seconds left.

"I was just trying to get feeling back in my knee," Daniels said. "I'm a senior, so I got up. I thought the best thing for the team was me at the foul line, but the ball just didn't go in the basket."

Centino hit two clutch free throws with 31.8 seconds to extend Atlantic City's lead to 53-50. DeGroot took the ball to the paint and missed two heavily-contested layups that gave the Vikings the ball back. Morgan missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 17.8 seconds left, but senior Kyle Gordon lost his handle on the rebound and the ball went out of bounds back to Atlantic City. Centino again knocked down two foul shots to put the game away.

Daniels finished with a game-high 23 points as well as eight rebounds, three steals and three blocks to lead Colts Neck, the only Cougars player in double-figures. DeGroot added nine points and five assists.

"He (Daniels) was better on person than he was on tape," Atlantic City coach Gene Allen said. "He was fabulous today. Fabulous. I think he ran out of gas at the end and that's what we were hoping. We wanted to make him have to bring the ball up and to their credit, they took him off the ball and opened things up, but I just think he ran out of gas at the end because he was fabulous."

"Lloyd is a special young man, not because he scores points but because he's a team player," Colts Neck coach Lou Piccola said. "A kid of his caliber can come out and score 20 to 25 points every night and I look at his game and it was typified the other night when he makes the pass (to Clarke). He always makes the right play."

Bethea led three Vikings players in double-figures with 16 points and Morgan chipped in 14, as the two sophomores led the way on the score sheet. Centino also poured in 10 points, including eight in the fourth quarter and all 10 in the second half.

Atlantic City will play for its third state championship in five years when it takes on fellow Group IV power Linden in Sunday's Group IV final at Rutgers University on Sunday. The Vikings' fourth-quarter comeback followed a model that Atlantic City has mastered over the past five years, including in a quarterfinal win over Cherry Hill West in which the visiting Lions held a double-digit second-half lead.

"I don't think they relish coming back, but they don't blink when they have to," Allen said of his team. "It was funny, because it was actually the younger guys tonight who said, 'Coach, we're not going to lose this game.' I think the philosophy is starting to become infectious, which is good."

Colts Neck played Wednesday without senior Tom O'Reilly, who did not make the trip due to a school-related matter, according to Colts Neck coach Lou Piccola.

The Cougars bow out of this year's NJSIAA Tournament having won its first ever sectional championship and will graduate five senior starters.

"It is what it is," Piccola said. "I'm just so proud of these kids. Every day, they gave us what they had."