Hemel Storm remain in the playoff hunt after winning one of their two games in a crunch double-header at the weekend.
Storm managed to comfortably beat bottom club Manchester Magic by 18 points, 92-74, on Saturday, which was the must-win clash on their weekend docket.
They lost 89-98 to third-placed Loughborough Riders on the Sunday, but with one win already in the bag, they stay firmly in the race.
It means that if Hemel beat Derby Trailblazers at Hemel Leisure Centre this Saturday – and other results go to form – they will qualify for the NBL Championship playoffs for the fifth time since winning promotion to the top flight.
Hemel sit in ninth place in the Division One table, with the top-eight making the grade. They are in a battle for one of the last two coveted spots that will all be decided this weekend.
Storm and three other Clubs – Essex Leopards, Bradford Dragons and Leicester Warriors – are all potential qualifiers in either seventh or eighth place. A victory on Saturday against playoff-bound Derby, who Hemel beat 98 -92 this team, means Storm will likely finish in seventh and face second-ranked Worthing Thunder away in the first-round of the playoffs.
Storm played Thunder in February and came away from the south coast with a shock 114-109 double overtime win.
Hemel’s home advantage for this Saturday’s game is not lost on head coach Robert Youngblood, who said: “It’s still in our hands. We need the best fans in the country – the Storm Troopers – to come out and help us get over the line.”
Storm kept their focus on Saturday after a slow start saw them fall behind 11-6 in Manchester, before stepping up their defensive and sharing the ball on offence to go on a 14-0 run to take a 22-15 first-quarter lead that they never relinquished.
The already-relegated Magic could not cope with Storm’s rebounding or their fast breaks but were able to stay in touch, holding the visitors’ advantage to eight points (44-36) at half-time.
A strong spurt after the break saw Hemel quickly grow their lead to 20 points and cruise down the stretch to an important win led by impressive displays from their three ex-BBL players – 27 points and 10 rebounds from TrayVonn Wright, 24 points from Blayne Freckleton that included four triples, and 13 rebounds, nine assists and four steals from Levi Noel, who was just short of a triple-double.
On Sunday an explosive first-quarter saw hosts Riders with the early advantage, leading by as many as 12 points midway through the period.
But Storm found their scoring touch late in the quarter to tie it at 33-33 as both sides set their stalls out with eye-catching offensive displays.
Despite Wright being restricted to just nine points, Storm led throughout the second stanza and held a 56-51 edge at the interval.
Hemel’s offence misfired in the third period as Loughborough stepped up their defence to hold Storm to just 12 points in the quarter and get back into the contest.
With just over five minutes remaining, Freckleton cut the Riders’ advantage to a single point with a triple before a confident 8-1 run gave Loughborough the edge heading into the final two minutes.
Another Freckleton score from long range made it 92-87 with 42 seconds left but Riders’ Lucien Cristofis hit four from four free-throws in the closing stages to give Loughborough the win.
Youngblood said: “We had to bounce back against Loughborough after they beat us two weeks’ ago by 42 points.
“We made some changes but gave up seven offensive rebounds down the stretch – and they made shots, we didn’t. We have to get off to better starts defensively and give a better effort for 40 minutes.”
Storm were led by 27 points, five rebounds and two assists from Bode Adeluola, while Levi Noel added 12 points, eight rebounds, five assists and two steals.
Storm’s crucial game against Derby tip-offs at 7pm this Saturday at Hemel Leisure Centre. For tickets or more information, visit the website www.stormbasketball.net.
Storm team and scorers v Manchester: TrayVonn Wright 27, Blayne Freckleton 24, Bode Adeluola 12, Tom Adorian 10, Will Ashby 9, Levi Noel 6, Jamie Hayes 2, Jack Burnell 2, Shaquille Lewis. Storm v Loughborough: Bode Adeluola 27, Blayne Freckleton 20, Levi Noel 12, TrayVonn Wright 9, Tom Adorian 8, Will Ashby 5, Jamie Hayes 5, Jack Burnell 3.