Hemel Storm’s bid to win a second national title of the season just fell short on Sunday when they lost in the Championship playoff final 67-57 to Worthing Thunder.
Despite a stellar defensive performance and a gutsy comeback from being 18 points down in the third quarter to only four with five minutes left to play, Hemel just could not consistently find the basket and ended with their lowest individual game score of the season.
The clash matched the fourth-seeded Thunder against the seventh-seeded Storm, who had pulled off upset victories against number two-ranked Solent Kestrels and third-seeded Reading Rockets to reach the final, the showpiece event of Basketball England’s NBL Finals Weekend played at the National Basketball Performance Centre in Manchester.
Hundreds of loyal Storm fans travelled north to support their team, hoping for a repeat of the club’s National Cup victory in January.
But while Storm’s defensive game plan was executed well, only two Hemel players hit double figures in scoring – Mike Darlow with 12 and American guard AJ Roberts with 10.
It was a frustrating offensive performance from a Hemel side that had shown great form and determination to reach the final as their shooting success rate dropped to just 33 per cent despite getting some excellent opportunities from close-range and from behind the three-point are where they connected on just four of 19 attempts.
A disappointed Hemel coach Robert Youngblood said afterwards: “We shot the ball horrendously. I thought early on we had good tempo and were getting the ball inside well, but apart from the opening five minutes we just struggled to put the ball in the basket.
“Worthing are a relatively small team so we wanted them to have to match up with us, especially with the height of Lee [Greenan, 7ft] and Tom [Adorian, 6ft 9ins].
“We did a pretty good job of guarding the three-point line [Worthing made only six of 25 attempts] and we made them put the ball on the floor.
“But we just couldn’t stay with their speed.
“It’s a tough loss because we held them to 67 points and normally we’d expect to win a game with an opponent’s score-line like that.
“It was a game when none of our top offensive performers could get going, you can credit Worthing’s defence for some of that, but we also missed some very makeable shots.
“But we won’t let this one result sour what has been a really successful season.
“The guys have been great, they’ve worked very hard and been committed to being the best team possible, representing the town around the country.
“I’m proud of what’s been achieved and especially for all of the fantastic volunteers, fans and sponsors who without question make this the best club in Division One.”
Storm started brightly and led 10-8 after five minutes but as their offence began to stutter, Worthing edged ahead and never looked back despite Hemel mounting numerous fight-back challenges.
By the end of the first period Thunder were 18-13 ahead and took a 37-28 lead into the locker room at half-time after timely scoring from the Division One league MVP Zaire Taylor and finals MVP forward Marquis Mathis
That duo accounted for 22 of their team’s points in the first-half.
Youngblood said: “Although we were down by nine at the half, we weren’t overly concerned. We knew we’d played poorly on offence but I was confident we’d pick things up in the second half, chip away at the deficit and get into an end game.”
Despite renewed belief that they could turn things around, Storm just couldn’t score consistently in the third quarter and Thunder were able to extend their lead to 54-42 on a Mathis three-pointer.
Hemel showed terrific mental toughness in the final stanza and with their fans roaring them on went on a 10-2 run over the first five minutes of the period as their stifling defence helped to pull them within just four points at 56-52.
But Thunder, sensing a winning comeback by Storm, then went on a 9-2 run of their own to dent Hemel’s momentum.
Worthing were able to control the final 90 seconds to end their 12-year wait for some NBL silverware.
Worthing coach Daniel Gayle admitted afterwards: “Hemel just kept chipping away at us in that last period and it seemed that a lid had been put on our basket, we just stopped scoring!
“But in the end, we managed to stay composed and to finish strong.”
Speaking about Hemel’s successful year as a whole, the club’s head of basketball programme Dave Titmuss, said: “This was the first season of a new era for Storm.
“We’ve had considerably increased resources from sponsors and fans and been able to put together a truly competitive squad under new head coach Robert Youngblood that has brought the National Cup to the town and won through to a second national final.
“There’s absolutely no doubt that we enjoy the best support in Division One and the atmosphere at our home games is electric.
“From all the positive feedback we get, the local community really appreciates the terrific sporting entertainment that we offer.
“Now we will build on all of this hard work to target more silverware next season.”
Storm’s squad and scorers v Worthing Thunder: Mike Darlow 12, AJ Roberts 10, Wayne Yeboah 8, Dave Ajumobi 7, Lee Greenan 6, Tom Adorian 6, Bode Adeluola 4, Courtney Van-Beest 2, Walid Mumuni 2, Ladi Brown, Jack Burnell, Chuck Duru and Rhyce Donegal.