Match Report: Derby Trailblazers

By Jamie King

Reading Rockets 72 – Derby Trailblazers 83

The Rockets travelled north to take on the Derby Trailblazers on Saturday night, looking to claim a victory against a close rival in the NBL D1. Things didn’t go to plan for Coach Pearson and his men, who were without two of their starting five through Achilles and ankle injuries to AJ Basi and Tyler Cartaino respectively. Shorthanded against a strong Derby side, their scoring effort fell short in an 83-72 loss.

Reis Pinnock opened up the Rockets’ account early with a three-pointer to match one by the Trailblazers’ Malcolm Smith. Meshack Lufile and Lewis Champion got to work in the paint to build a slight advantage for the Rockets as the quarter wore on before another Pinnock treble extended the lead to 14-9. The Trailblazers got to the line and hit free throws throughout the early exchanges to prevent the Rockets tightening their grip on the quarter, with both teams showing an offensive focus on getting in the paint and splitting the defence. Though they weren’t rewarded with free throws as often as the Trailblazers, the Rockets’ guards converted efficiently in the paint before the scoring slowed on both sides. Strong defense from both sides saw the game go without a field goal for almost the last three and a half minutes of the quarter, with Lewis Champion providing the only bucket during that stretch by draining a three with 30 seconds to go. With the final shot of the quarter, Derby’s Ashley Ugo got inside to try and beat the buzzer but was met by Meshack who blocked the shot to end the quarter with Reading up 23-16.

Reading’s offense stalled in the second period, with only Meshack and Sam Toluwase contributing field goals until the final minute of the period. The Blazers, on the other hand, scored from across the floor as Reading’s lead began to crumble. An early three by Jonas Dietrich was bolstered by more trips to the line for Malcolm Smith, but more missed shots by both teams saw the score go unchanged during the middle stretch of the quarter. Leighton Elliot-Sewell got the Trailblazers back near level with two baskets in the paint after some tenacious offensive rebounding. The Rockets were certainly feeling the loss of Tyler Cartaino, who was unavailable on the night, as they struggled to score the kind of easy transition opportunities which he is so adept at providing. With both teams turning the ball over the game was there for the taking, but the Rockets failed to capitalise and, despite a late three and free throws from Jaz Bains, a Blake Bowman buzzer-beating three saw the teams go into the half level at 34 apiece.

Coach Pearson breathed some life into the depleted squad at the half and they came out swinging, with a flurry of early baskets bookended by Lewis Champion three in the opening minutes. Bowman and Smith, en route to 20 and 31 point performances respectively, had a reply for each of the Rockets’ efforts and kept things close until Lufile and Pinnock made layups back-to-back to restore a seven point advantage at 48-41. Unwilling to go quietly, the Blazers came right back with two deep bombs courtesy of Kayne King and the impressive Malcolm Smith. Layups were exchanged at either end as the quarter drew to a close, both teams struggling to hit jump shots and relying instead on penetrative drives inside. Lewis Champion found the ball in his hands with 10 seconds to go and promptly accelerated from halfcourt into the paint for a soft left-handed layup to end the quarter with Rockets up 52-51.

After a hard-fought first three quarters, the game started to slip away from the Rockets in the fourth. Dietrich was red-hot for the Blazers and racked up eight points with the team’s first three shots. The Rockets continued to feast on a steady diet of paint scores through the forwards, with a baseline dunk from Sam Toluwase highlighting their success inside. Despite still scoring with regularity, the Rockets struggled to keep up with the deadly efficiency of Smith, Bowman and Dietrich as they carved out a lead early in the quarter. A Ben Dixon midrange shot was cancelled out quickly by a Bowman three and Smith matched Meshack’s production inside as the midpoint of the quarter came around, extending Derby’s lead to nine before Jaz Bains made an essential three-pointer to keep the game within reach. Malcolm Smith continued to wreak havoc in the paint, however, weaving around Rockets defenders for easy baskets. A Reis Pinnock three with two and a half minutes remaining gave Reading some hope that was quickly extinguished by a series of baskets by Derby. With the game decided, the final baskets were traded and the game concluded 83-72 to Derby.

On a frustrating evening for the Rockets, Coach Pearson and his men can take some solace in the fact that five players hit double digits in another balanced offensive showing. Without Basi and Cartaino the efficiency simply wasn’t as Coach Pearson had hoped for on the night, with the team shooting just shy of 40% from the field. The Rockets’ defense couldn’t stop the Blazers working their way inside and, despite Meshack’s presence at the rim, they were too comfortable finishing around the hoop. The free throws proved a major factor, with Derby racking up 22 efforts from the line compared to Reading’s 7. The match will leave Reading with plenty to work on ahead of their next league fixture, where they will hope to bounce back against the Oaklands Wolves on Sunday 5th December at Rivermead tipping at 5 pm.