Hemel Storm led by as many as 20 points against an under-strength Derby Trailblazers at Hemel Leisure Centre on Saturday before a second-half collapse saw them lose 99-89 to end their playoffs hopes in the season finale.
“After a great first-half we played down to the competition,” said a frustrated Hemel coach Robert Youngblood.
“It was too easy for us in that first-half and I warned the guys at half-time not to relax because Derby would make a run. But they turned off and it was too late when they tried to turn it on again.”
A win would have earned Storm a top-eight spot and a fifth qualification for the post-season since the club was promoted to the top flight seven seasons ago.
But the loss saw them slip to tenth in the 14-team table.
Youngblood added: “I’m very disappointed for everyone involved with Storm and especially the fans.
“We let a lot of people down – ourselves included. I’m absolutely gutted.”
Derby were without injured US forward and league top scorer Malcolm Smith, who averages 26 points a game, and third leading scorer Mathew Ward-Hibbert.
From the tip-off and to the delight of the fans, Storm raced to a 16-2 lead as four of their starters – Bode Adeluola, Blayne Freckleton, Tom Adorian and TrayVonn Wright – all found the net from a series of free-flowing attacks, while Levi Noel did sterling work on the boards, eventually grabbing 11 rebounds.
Derby put a mini-run together mostly from the free-throw line as some over-zealous officiating penalised Hemel’s defence, but Derby could not contain Storm on offence as Hemel closed out the opening quarter with a triple from Will Ashby to lead 27-14.
It got worse for the visitors half-way through the second stanza as an Adeluola lay-up and back-to-back Freckleton and Ashby three-pointers went unanswered to move Hemel into a commanding 42–22 lead before Derby were able to recover a little to make it 49-36 by half-time.
There were little signs of the dramatic turnaround to come as the teams started the third period.
But Derby came out fast with four triples, as Jake Wesselingh hit three and Kayne King sank a fourth.
Hemel’s Wright, Adorian and Freckleton kept their team’s offence ticking over to maintain a 10-point cushion at 66-56 with four minutes of the period remaining.
But in the last four minutes of the third quarter and the opening two minutes of the fourth Storm struggled to find rhythm on offence and lack lustre defence allowed Derby to rack-up a 17-1 run which was completed by a Wesselingh triple that gave the visitors an remarkable 80-71 edge.
Hemel made short runs in response but Derby were able to edge the period 26-19 to seal the comeback win.
The season-ending defeat for Storm saw them paced by 25 points, 12 rebounds, three assists and two blocks from US star Wright, while Adeluola added 14 points, five rebounds and five assists.
Storm team and scorers v Derby: TrayVonn Wright 25, Bode Adeluola 14, Tom Adorian 11, Blayne Freckleton 11, Will Ashby 11, Jack Burnell 7, Jamie Hayes 6, Levi Noel 4.
n Storm are holding their 2018/19 awards night this Friday in the family lounge of the Sir Elton John Stand at Watford FC’s stadium.