By Jamie King
Reading Rockets 93 Hemel Storm 81
Coming off the back of multiple close wins in recent weeks, the Rockets suited up for Saturday night’s matchup with the Hemel Storm expecting another hotly-contested battle against one of the top teams in the NBL. With a lively Rivermead crowd behind them, however, the Rockets put on their best performance of the season to claim a dominant victory, avenging their loss to the Storm last month in style and exhibiting the full potential that this group has on both ends of the floor.
The Rockets started well, leaning on Meshack Lufile’s post-ups as a source of consistent offense throughout the first quarter. He opened Reading’s account with a neat hook shot, commanding attention in the paint and opening up space for the Rockets to exhibit their passing game. Tyler Cartaino was the first beneficiary of Coach Pearson’s slick passing game, getting free in the lane for a dunk after patient ball movement round the perimeter. Even when the passing game briefly faltered and Hemel managed to get a fastbreak off of a steal, Reis Pinnock showed great drive to break up the play right under his own net. With both teams treating the Rivermead crowd to fluid team basketball, good looks were plentiful even despite solid defensive efforts from both sides. Cartaino added to his scoring tally with a deep three followed by a quick step through the lane for a layup, and then earned himself an assist after a pinpoint entry pass from the wing allowed Meshack to turn his man on the baseline and finish at the hoop. Hemel, in need of offensive production against a increasingly impressive Rockets defense, got the ball to Greg Poleon on the left wing where he cleverly faked a pass before draining the open three. Unwilling to let Hemel build on that bucket, Lewis Champion linked up with Sam Toluwase for an athletic finish inside. After another defensive stop and score for the Rockets, Hemel were feeling the pressure and subbed on Jonathan Lashley and Jack Burnell after a timeout. The two promptly combined for nine points, catapulting Hemel right back into the game. The quarter ended with Meshack Lufile hitting two tough layups, including a powerful baseline spin, but Hemel’s Taylor Johnson hit three free throws to keep the score at 23-21 to the Rockets.
The second period opened with more varied passing from the Rockets, earning Pinnock and Dixon three pointers. With the offense flowing, Dixon changed gears on the next possession and curled round the key to get a layup off of Cartaino’s handoff, giving the Rockets eight points early in the quarter. Hemel kept producing buckets of their own, though, with Poleon and Johnson combining to keep things close. With both teams continuing to compete well on both ends, the game remained close as the quarter wore on. Free throws were traded either side of a scoring spree which saw an incredible, off-balance corner three made by Lewis Champion before a tough reverse layup by Hemel’s Johnson was cancelled out by a baseline jumper courtesy of Meshack. Johnson, putting his team firmly on his back, hit a three from the top of the key after a defensive lapse allowed him to get open and drew a clever charge at midcourt soon after to win his team the ball. His heroics left Hemel trailing by just two points with three minutes left until halftime, but that proved more than enough time for the Rockets to build on their slim advantage. A Meshack kickout found its way to Sam Toluwase after the extra pass and his resulting three kicked off a devastating 13-0 run to close the half. He complemented his three with great hustle on the next two plays, first battling for the ball on the floor and then cleverly slipping it to Meshack for the finish and then charging downhill in transition to earn a fastbreak dunk. Meshack scored again off of an offensive board, but picked up a knock that saw him sit until the third quarter. Cartaino then found Pinnock for the back cut layup with yet more slick passing, and Sam T ended the half with a buzzer-beating shot off of Jaz Bains’ drive which fell through the net. Rockets went in at halftime up 51-36 and with Hemel reeling.
Greg Poleon came out firing in the third, hitting two tough midrange shots early with his smooth faceup game. The Rockets simply wouldn’t stop scoring though, and Cartaino bagged himself five points in return after splitting the defense for a dunk and hitting a deep three. Having held their opponents to 15 points in the second quarter, the Rockets’ defensive intensity shone even more brightly in the third as the team hustled for every ball and fought to stay in front of the ever-threatening Taylor Johnson. After making an and-one to reduce the deficit to 13, Hemel’s talisman went scoreless for the rest of the third thanks to the hounding presence of Reis Pinnock, flanked by brilliant team defense from Ben Dixon and Jaz Bains in particular. Jaz, quiet up to this point on offense, hit his first three midway through the period and his bucket clearly inspired Sam Toluwase, who took and made an early triple of his own soon after. The two then combined on a well-timed double team to steal the ball from Johnson, releasing Pinnock for a dunk at the other end and increasing the lead to 19. Threes for Bains and Pinnock, whose patience on the ball saw him turn down a busy lane in favour of a smooth pullup from deep, continued to grow the lead despite Poleon and Cashley showcasing tough shotmaking with two off-balance midrange efforts. After forcing a shot-clock violation on Hemel’s last possession of the quarter, the Rockets carried a 72-51 advantage into the fourth.
Having established a commanding lead, the Rockets never looked like surrendering it as the game drew to a close. Poleon scored well in the early minutes of the period to prevent the lead from increasing, but interior scores from Meshack and Cartaino were followed by two more tough threes for Jaz. Hemel’s Levi Noel combined with Taylor Johnson to produce a small run for the Storm, leaving them down by 15 with three minutes to play, but the Rockets smartly slowed the game down to prevent any momentum building on Hemel’s part. Late threes for Ben Dixon and the red-hot Jaz Bains killed off any thoughts of a comeback, with the game ending 93-81 after some garbage-time buckets for the Storm.
In what was certainly the most complete performance Coach Pearson’s men have put together this season, the Rockets dismantled their opponents on both ends with incisive passing and gritty defense. Tallying 30 assists compared to just 13 turnovers as a team, the Rockets showed a willingness to not only share the ball but also to use it efficiently, with six players scoring in double digits on a collective 55 FG%. Hemel’s Johnson and Poleon each played fantastically, combining for 56 of their team’s 81 points, but the tenacious defense of the whole Rockets squad forced the ball out of their hands at key moments and prevented the rest of Hemel’s team from building any offensive momentum. Coach Pearson can go forward using this game as a blueprint for what this team is capable of, and the performance his side put on today is sure to have the rest of the NBL dreading their next matchup with the Rockets.