National Cup holders Hemel Storm came agonisingly close to reaching this year’s final at Loughborough Riders but were edged out by a single point, 89-90, on Sunday.
Storm held an 87-74 lead with just over five minutes left, but their offence dried-up down the stretch.
Hemel led by double-digits several times in this semi-final before Riders’ fourth-quarter comeback and what proved to be the game-winning lay-up by Alex Roberts.
The visitors had a last-gasp chance to seal victory when trailing by a point. With ten seconds left they had possession and Storm head coach Robert Youngblood called a time-out to set-up a potential game-winning play. But Levi Noel’s final attempt hit the rim and bounced out.
“I’m absolutely gutted,” said Youngblood afterwards. “I thought we executed the game-plan to perfection until the last five minutes when we started to play individual ball rather than team ball.
“We attacked them all game and they couldn’t handle it until in the last five minutes we stopped doing what had given us the lead. In those last minutes we were playing not to lose, instead of playing to win.”
And Youngblood admitted: “This loss will hurt for a while but we must pick ourselves up and move on, we have to start climbing up the league table and get ourselves in position to qualify for the playoffs”.
In a competitive first period, Storm consistently cut through Loughborough’s pressing defence and powerful Leome Francis caused problems close to the hoop. Lightening-quick guard Leon Henry rounded off one of many Storm fast-breaks to put Hemel 32 -28 ahead as the period ended.
And in the second quarter the visitors took their biggest lead, 47-32, after consecutive three-pointers from top scorer Blayne Freckleton.
But even at this stage there were worrying signs as Storm were being badly out-rebounded.
Storm’s associate head coach Dave Titmuss said: “Overall we shot a better percentage than Riders – especially from three-point range – but they ended up grabbing 15 more rebounds than us which gave them extra possessions, and in a one-point game this proved crucial.”
By half-time Hemel’s lead was cut to four points, 53-49, but they came out for the third period with renewed determination.
A driving lay-up by Freckleton gave Storm a 69-58 lead which they held until Riders clawed a point back, 70-80, going into the last stanza.
Storm were able to maintain their ten-point cushion at 87-77 with five minutes left before their offence stuttered.
A huge three-pointer from Riders’ Lucien Cristofis and a lay-up by Niall Harris completed the young home team’s recovery to cut Storm’s advantage to one point with just over a minute left as the game entered its dramatic climax.
Freckleton and Francis led the way for Storm. Freckleton topped all scorers with 25 points and five assists, and there was a double-double from Francis who had 24 points and 11 rebounds. Bode Adeluola contributed 13 points off the bench.
Storm team and scorers: Blayne Freckleton 25, Leome Francis 24, Bode Adeluola 13, Levi Noel 8, Jack Burnell 6, Leon Henry 6, Tom Adorian 4, Tom Martin 2, Jamie Hayes 1, Sam Dunscombe, Shaquille Lewis.
Storm are at Hemel Leisure Centre this Saturday in their last fixture before Christmas when they host bottom side Manchester Magic (tip-off 7pm) in a crucial National League Division One clash.
For tickets or more details, visit the website www.stormbasketball.net.