By Jamie King
Team Solent Kestrels 69 Reading Rockets 64
The Rockets tipped off the league season with a matchup against the defending champion Team Solent Kestrels. A trip to Southampton, playing away at an NBL powerhouse team, promised to pose a real challenge to the new-look Rockets roster, and the game certainly delivered as the two sides battled down to the wire in a tough loss on the road for the Rockets.
Despite controlling the tip through new signing Meshack Lufile, the Rockets struggled from the field early. The Kestrels built a 4-0 lead through the first couple minutes of play as the Rockets missed their first six shots, but a timely Jaz Bains treble ensured the Rockets got on the board before the Kestrels could start to pull away. Although the Rockets were down nine late in the quarter, buckets from Tyler Cartaino and youngster Kivuvu Live ensured that the first period ended with the Rockets at a manageable six-point deficit at 14-20.
Going into the second quarter, the Rockets looked like a team ready to seize the game by the scruff of the neck. Trading in the volume of trebles they shot in the first period for more driving layups and pull-up mid-rangers, the Rockets began to find some rhythm and played some great team basketball, with their first four buckets of the period all coming from different players. Sam Toluwase pushed the Rockets into the lead three minutes before the half with a free throw and then a bucket in the paint. Meshack Lufile and Jaz Bains, both of whom provided key shotmaking throughout the first half, each scored in the closing minutes to ensure the Rockets went into halftime leading the defending champs by two after holding them to just 11 points in a dominant second quarter performance and a 33-31 advantage.
After the coaches had an opportunity for some input over the halftime break, it seemed inevitable that this match was set to be a close one. The Rockets continued to focus their offensive efforts inside the arc, filling it up with a barrage of drives and two-point jumpers led by the powerful play of Meshack. The third quarter passed with neither side giving an inch, every bucket drawing a reply from the other team and the score always hovering around a tie. A Cole Gentry three in the final minute of the quarter seemed set to give the Kestrels a five-point cushion entering the final period, but Jaz Bains showed great focus to reply with a three of his own – the Rockets’ first triple since the first quarter – to keep it a one-score game at 52-50 in Kestrels favour.
Meshack recorded back-to-back blocks at the top of the fourth, stifling what looked to be a promising period for the Kestrels after they had knocked down another three to open up the quarter. With the game in almost perfect balance, a two-minute dry spell for the Rockets including a pair of turnovers in an 11-1 Kestrels run, proved fatal, ending with six minutes to go when Tyler Cartaino knocked down a free throw to close the gap back to five. Another Cole Gentry three, his second and the Kestrels’ third of the quarter, saw the Rockets fall behind by eight before Luke Busumbru, who had 12 on the night, gave the reigning champions their first double-digit lead of the night after his layup took the score to 63-53. A six-minute drought in which the Rockets failed to register a field goal was put to rest by Meshack after two strong moves inside on back-to-back plays, but the Rockets were still left seven down with only three minutes to play after a tough, defensive fourth period from both sides. More inside pressure proved productive and after Sam Toluwase used his cool veteran savvy to score and assist the relentless Meshack in the final two minutes. The Rockets had dragged themselves back into the game with impressive grit and tenacity. Down four with one minute to play, a series of fouls resulted in the Kestrels hitting two free throws to stretch their lead before another bucket from you-know-who (Meshack, of course) kept the deficit at four with 16 seconds on the clock. Relying on missed free throws, Sam Toluwase sent another Kestrel to the line. They split the pair, putting the Rockets down five with too little time for what would have been a truly remarkable comeback.
Despite the loss, Coach Pearson will surely be proud of the tenacity and effort of the Rockets who, after a tough stretch in the fourth that would have spelt the end for most teams, fought their way back into the game to force a tense finish against the reigning champions. The league will certainly be on high alert after this display of interior dominance from the Rockets, who weren’t afraid to go back to basics when the trebles wouldn’t fall. Meshack put on a brilliant performance to keep it close throughout, ending with 21 pts, 12 rebounds (7 offensive) and 3 hugely important blocks and his efforts inside were complemented by Sam Toluwase’s 10 pts and 7 boards off the bench and the perimeter threat of Jaz Bains, who had 10 pts with 2 threes. Although disappointing to lose in such a close fashion, the Rockets’ new roster came together brilliantly to put on a gritty display against a top-quality opponent and, if this game is any indication, there’s plenty to be excited about for the Rockets this season.