Reading Rockets captured their second title of the season with an 88-57 victory over Worthing Thunder in the VCars.co.uk EBL Division 1 playoff final in Manchester on Sunday.
It was a comfortable win for regular season champs Reading, after needing overtime to dispatch of Essex Leopards in their semi-final on Saturday. Lewis Champion (1993 born) was named MVP as Worthing had no answer for him.
Rockets never trailed in the game, jumping out to a 16-2 lead in the first five minutes and not looking back.
Head coach Samit Nuruzade was extremely pleased with the win but made it clear the season hasn’t been as smooth as it may have appeared.
“It feels successful but the season itself, there were so many ups and downs,” he said. “It was difficult…successful, on paper it looks good, but we had to work really, really hard for this.
“I thought compared to yesterday (against Essex) we shot the ball very well, tactically we had it spot on,” he continued. “In the beginning we struggled a little bit, but as the game went on we had it all figured out.
“We knew what we needed to do to overcome a powerful rebounding team (like Worthing), so that was delightful to see that we executed defensively.”
Champion had 25 points on 7/10 shooting, as Nuruzade paid tribute to him:
“Today he was superb, a young man showing such experience, he took whatever he was there, he drove to the basket, was great on defence, I’m really happy and delighted for him.”
Champion’s partner in crime, Division 1 Player of the Year, Luke Nelson (1995 born), had 21 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists on 6/10 shooting and has been a key piece of Reading’s team all year.
“Luke is that kind of young man,” said Nuruzade. “He’s brave, skillful and smart and that’s what he’s done all season for us. I can’t say enough good words about him, and we’ve done good for him as a club; I’ve never coached anybody that good as a person and a basketball player. I’m happy for him and happy for the club.”
Worthing coach Daniel Hildreth felt his team came out lackadaisical:
“In games like this, we approached things and said that little things make a difference,” he said. “Little things like diving for loose balls, boxing out and rebounding and they came out with more intensity than us and they caught us on the back foot early.”
No Worthing player reached double figures, as Bud Johnston and Hank Rivers had 9 points each to lead the south east coast based side.
Reading were the first team to book their place in the final, needing overtime to do it, beating defending champions Essex Leopards, 75-70.
Rockets trailed for the entire game, but came up with the plays down the stretch as Luke Nelson came alive to score 13 points across the last 5:27 of regulation and overtime (check the video here).
However, in what wouldn’t be the first time the refereeing took centre stage over the weekend, Essex sounded off about the officiating after the game, as their star player Greg Hernandez was in foul trouble most of the game.
“It’s very frustrating” said general manager Dave Ryan. “We’ve worked hard all season to get to the finals, and to have the same referee make three calls that basically changed the game is very disappointing.
“But we’ve had a great season. With an entirely new team we’ve won the National Trophy for the first time, finished in the top four in the league and reached the Final Fours. Robert [Youngblood], Roger [Malpass] and the team deserve a lot of credit.”
Nelson finished with 19 points, 9 rebounds and 5 assists, Ryan Lohfink added 18, whilst Lewis Champion had 11.
Hernandez led Essex, who won’t be entering the BBL next season as originally planned, with a 21 point, 10 rebound double double, and Carl Josey added 12 and 10 of his own.
In the most controversial game of the weekend, Worthing escaped with a 54-53 victory over Northumbria after interference was called on Hank Rivers’ 15 foot fadeaway at the buzzer (video here).
As the buzzer sounded, Northumbria began to celebrate as the ball rolled out of the hoop, however, the referees talked it over to decide a Northumbria player interfered with the ball as it was on the rim by hitting the net. Chaos ensued, as Worthing’s improbable winning streak stretched to 12 games.
Northumbria head coach Marc Steutel took to Twitter the next morning to reflect.
“Don’t even know what to say,” he tweeted. “Feel absolutely devastated for my players. People are going to talk about the last play and I understand why opinion is split on it. But throughout the course of the game there were multiple times when the backboard was slapped on no deliberation.
“However when someone has a chance to make it about them, they take it. My players have put 8 months of their lives into this season and to have it taken away by the only paid professionals in there stinks. I am lost for words on what to say to my players, particularly the 3rd and 4th years who have put so much commitment and effort into our programme.
“To have it taken away by numerous inconsistencies is gutting. So much is made on the standard of coaching in this country to develop players. Surely the standard of officiating is just as important. I can’t remember the last national finals event I was at and the officiating wasn’t a factor that is discussed by my co-coaches.”
“However, I will always ask our guys to reflect on our own performance and that is where our final thoughts will remain. I am so proud of the effort, commitment and willingness to buy in from everyone affiliated with our programme. I love everyone of our players and thank them for a memorable season.”
“Honestly, I couldn’t tell,” Worthing Thunder coach Daniel Hildreth said when asked about the last second call.
“I knew that the net was touched by somebody from where I was as the ball was on the cylinder then I know that KD tried to tip it but at that stage, the buzzer had gone.”
Worthing were led by Brendan Okoronkwo’s 13 points, Bud Johnston added 11, whilst Hank Rivers had a 10 point, 13 rebound double double.
Ken Wiser led Northumbria with 16 points in the scrappy affair, whilst Toby Hutton added 12.
Did you make it to Manchester? What did you think about the weekend and results?