Hemel Storm’s strength in depth proved crucial as they defeated a talented Reading Rockets side 88-81 at Sportspace on Saturday in a National League Division One clash.
The victory over one of the most talent-packet rosters in the league moved Hemel (8-5) back into fourth place in the Division One standings, ahead of Team Northumbria (8-4) and the Rockets (8-5) on points differential.
It avenged a loss to these same Rockets in mid-October when the Reading side ran out 95-94 winners in a close tussle in Wokingham.
And it provides the perfect platform ahead of Storm’s huge National Cup final this coming Sunday against Manchester Magic (6-6) – the Hemel club’s first national final since winning promotion to the top flight in 2012.
The final, at the University of East London’s Sportsdock (tip-off 3.30pm), has now sold-out with some 800 fans eagerly-awaiting the crucial clash.
Just under half of those are Hemel fans making the trip.
Saturday’s high-paced, possession-by-possession battle with Reading saw Hemel fight back from a 16-6 deficit in the opening period to lead by six at half-time after Storm’s Courtney Van-Beest hit two jump-shots and a free-throw in the final minute.
The visitors recovered after the break as Hemel’s offence went cold and they took a 64-65 edge into the last quarter.
But in a magnificent defensive stand, Reading were held in the last period to just 16 points – their lowest quarter tally of the game – and Storm went back in front 71-68 after a Mike Darlow free-throw and a Wayne Yeboah driving lay-up, a lead they never surrendered.
Crucially, Storm were able to stifle Rockets’ offence in the fourth period and restrict their impressive American guard Jerrod Hendricks to just three of his 21-point haul.
The individual play of Yeboah in the decisive last ten minutes – in a total team effort – was outstanding and he scored 10 of his game total 13 points after snagging offensive rebounds, grabbing loose balls and leading by example with tenacious, all-effort defence.
Hemel’s coaching director Dave Titmuss said afterwards: “When the game was on the line in the fourth period everyone stepped up defensively and they each deserve credit but Wayne made some big individual plays.
“He’s a great example to all of our young fans.”
With two minutes remaining Storm’s top-scorer AJ Roberts (25 points) was fouled as he attempted a jump-shot and his successful free-throw stretched Hemel’s advantage to ten points at 84-74 and brought cheers from the home fans right to the final buzzer.
Storm head coach Robert Youngblood said: “We knew it would be a battle, Reading has undoubtedly one of the most talented rosters in the country and we’d lost to them away by a point earlier in the season.
“They started the game extremely well and at a high tempo, just as we expected them to.
“But we got back on terms and our fourth-quarter defence was fantastic and a key to the win.
“We allowed them only seven field goals and all but one of those shots was taken under pressure.
“If we’d hit more of our free-throws the winning margin would have gone into double figures.
“This was a great team win for us.
“Our bench contributed 47 points – over half our total score – and allowed us to keep pace with Reading and go into the final quarter with rested guys and a defensive mind-set.
“It was a tough game and excellent preparation for the cup final against Manchester this Sunday.”
Storm team and scorers v Reading: AJ Roberts 25, Wayne Yeboah 13, Courtney Van-Beest 10, Jack Burnell 10, Dave Ajumobi 7, Walid Mumuni 6, Lee Greenan 6, Mike Darlow 5, Bode Adeluola 4, Tom Adorian 2, Rhyce Donegal, Chuck Duru.
After Sunday’s cup final, Hemel travel to bottom-but-one side Kent Crusaders (4-8) on Sunday, January 28,in the league.
Storm’s next home game is on Saturday, February 3, when they host the winless bottom club Lancashie Spinners (0-13) in a National League Division One clash (tip-off 7pm).
For tickets or further details, visit the website www.stormbasketball.net.