By Jamie King
Reading Rockets 90 Loughborough Riders 86
With a place in the semi-finals of the Lynch Trophy at stake, the Reading Rockets hosted the Loughborough Riders in a tough quarter-final matchup. Despite dominating large stretches of the game, a frantic finish saw the Rockets escape with a hard-fought home win against a tenacious Loughborough side who fought to the very end.
Reading started slow, allowing Loughborough to open up a 10-0 lead in the first quarter. After a strong defensive possession by the Riders, Meshack Lufile secured a well-contested offensive rebound for a putback to stop the bleeding. A trademark block from Meshack injected some energy into the Rockets, who quickly tallied 10 points of their own thanks to a Jaz Bains three and some more buckets inside from Meshack. A flurry of fastbreak scores allowed the Riders to build another convincing lead, drawing a timeout from Coach Pearson with the Rockets down 19-12. The Rockets responded well, shoring up their defense and putting points on the board through a deep Lewis Champion bomb. Late free throws from the Riders’ Justin Hedley saw the quarter end 23-18 to Riders.
The second period began with more back-and-forth scoring, with Tyler Cartaino and Sam Toluwase the beneficiaries of some poor transition defense from the Riders. With contributions from all positions, the Rockets found some offensive consistency and began to mount a comeback. High-level guard play collapsed Loughborough’s defense throughout the second quarter, opening up space for the Rockets to enjoy inside. Although the Riders were able to create space of their own with a spread of shooters on the floor, the interior presence of Meshack Lufile prevented them from capitalising. Their dry spell from the field – coupled with tough mid-range shotmaking by the Rockets – saw the Rockets take the lead, quickly extending it to 38-31 as the quarter wore on. With half-time looming, the Riders responded well through Hedley and Joe Bielak, who each got to the line for easy scores to cut the deficit. In the final 90 seconds, however, a textbook two-point jumpshot from Jaz Bains lit a fire under Tyler Cartaino, who was riding high after a dominant league showing the day before. Producing seven points in the final minute, Tyler’s late-half heroics gave the Rockets a commanding 47-36 lead at the break.
With a double-digit lead to protect, the Rockets started out the second half with a couple of sloppy turnovers. The Riders were unable to use this to their advantage, however, as the Rockets matched them shot-for-shot through the opening exchanges. The Rockets soon cleaned up their ballhandling, with Pinnock marshalling a powerful pick n’ roll score for Mesahck which was soon followed by a textbook baseline spin by the big man. A turnover off the inbounds allowed AJ Basi, who started slowly, to hit a dagger from the top of the key to restore a 14-point lead for Reading. A number of possessions passed with a combination of stingy defense and inefficient offense resulting in a scoring slump on both sides, but Basi, the centrepiece of the Rockets’ offense throughout the quarter, splashed a transition three in the final minute to ensure the Rockets would extend their lead over the quarter. After a Cartaino coast-to-coast layup beat the buzzer, Reading closed out the quarter with a dominant 68-51 lead.
Despite early buckets from Victor Ndoukou, the Riders were unable to close the gap as AJ Basi and Cartiano continued to hit shots from all over the court. With five minutes to go and the match seemingly secure, Harrison Gamble and Greg Wild each connected from deep to build an 8-0 Loughborough run that took the score to 81-70. With the threat of a comeback a real possibility, Lewis Champion answered with a his third three of the night. Unwilling to go quietly, Gamble and Wild produced a three-pointer each in the closing minutes to bring the score to 85-80. Looking to inbound the ball with 20 seconds left, the Rockets turned the ball over with a costly backcourt violation, giving Loughborough the ball back just in time for Gamble to hit yet another three. With their lead cut to two points and just ten seconds left, the Rockets watched AJ Basi take the tactical foul and step up to the line. With Rivermead firmly behind him, AJ hit both to extend the lead to four in what ought to have been the decisive play of the game. It surely looked that way as Reis Pinnock jumped the passing lane on the Riders’ inbound pass, stealing the ball and taking it to the hoop for a powerful dunk, but an Ndoukou three with two seconds remaining cast Rivermead into uncertainty once again. With so little time, though, the Riders were unable to turn the ball over and were forced to foul, sending Lewis Champion to the line where he split the free throws to end the game.
Though the Rockets enjoyed long periods of comfortable control in the second and third quarters, they nearly fell victim to a fourth quarter collapse that saw Loughborough score a remarkable 35 points in the closing period. In a frantic game characterised by fastbreak scoring, Coach Pearson will be thankful that the Rockets made it out with the win after their testing final period. Cartaino and Lufile, who combined for 48 points on the night, went without a field goal for the final six minutes of play, and more emphasis on producing scoring opportunities for the Rockets’ key threats will be necessary in future contests as close as this one. With that being said, the Rockets’ offense was efficient and effective throughout, despite a high turnover count. If the Rockets carry forward the shotmaking they showed today and tidy up the turnovers and transition defense, closing out games will prove a far simpler task. For now, though, the team can be pleased to take two wins from two games this weekend and can look forward to the upcoming semi-final of the Lynch Trophy.