It was standing room only at Sportspace on Saturday as Hemel Storm concluded their regular season campaign with an emphatic 88-72 win over fourth-placed Derby and ensure they head into the playoffs in a confident mood.
Hemel’s win was underpinned by a remarkable haul of 66 team rebounds – 30 more than their opponents and the most by any team in the National League Division 1 all season.
American import Khapri Alston, who has been a revelation for Storm since signing in late January, dominated the boards again with 18 snags and Michael Darlow had 10 of his own.
Just a point separated the teams after a pulsating first quarter but Hemel eased into the lead midway through the second as their fast break clicked into gear. It was a lead they would not relinquish.
Alston also led Storm’s scorers with 17 points but this was a confident team performance which saw them win all four quarters and get an impressive 40-point contribution from the bench.
All 11 players got on the scoresheet and all grabbed at least a couple of rebounds, including Wayne Yeboah, who had to retire from the game in the first-quarter due to a thigh muscle injury sustained against Bradford last week.
The result completes an unlikely turnaround in Hemel’s fortunes as they moved out of a mid-season relegation battle to become one of the form teams in the league.
This was their 10th win in 14 outings.
Storm have unsettled many teams in the latter stages of the campaign with tenacious defence and powerful rebounding. The individual talents of guard Nik Rhodes and Alston are a handful for anyone and when combined with the blend of youth and experience off the bench, they have become a handful.
Head coach David Allin said: “At Christmas, I set a very optimistic and challenging objective of getting to 13 wins by the end of the season.
“Now, I am very pleased to say that we achieved that goal. It’s been an amazing turnaround and I’m extremely proud of the effort the players have put in.
“Saturday night’s win over Derby was a fitting finale – the crowd was absolutely incredible and I think we put on a good show for them.”
He went on to give his views on the playoffs: “We’ve got ourselves in a position where three wins can get us a national title.
“It’s going to be a very difficult game at Northumbria, they have excellent players and are well-coached. But I don’t think we’ve played at our maximum yet for a whole game. If we can do so this weekend then we have a chance of creating an upset – it’s a one-off game and anything can happen.”
Hemel v Derby: Alston 17, Kearney 13, Rhodes 10, Josey 10, Burnell 9, Adorian 8, Mumuni 6, Darlow 5, Yeboah 4, Rodwell 4 and Allin 2
With all league games complete, the top eight sides now ride into the post-season playoffs where eight-placed Storm face a tough match-up away to No 1 seeds and league champions Northumbria this Sunday (4pm).
It’s a game that several months ago would have been considered a formality for the Newcastle side but Hemel’s recent improvement makes it a contest Northumbria will not relish – all the pressure is on them and Hemel have nothing to lose.
But Storm will need to be firing on all cylinders.