By Jamie King
London Lions II 70 Reading Rockets 94
Saturday afternoon saw the Rockets visit the capital for a date with London Lions II in a key NBL D1 matchup. New signing Tyler Cartaino produced an all-time Rockets performance on both ends to power a commanding league victory which gives the Rockets take their second win from three games this season.
A slow start for the Rockets saw them down 9-5 at the six-minute mark, buoyed by Tyler Cartaino’s early three and layup. With Meshack Lufile holding down the inside as usual, the Rockets rode their defense to stay in the game while they warmed up from the field, with AJ Basi soon on the board through a pair of free throws. The Lions’ relentless attacks inside proved productive, though, and they responded to each Reading basket in kind. Even back-to-back threes from Jaz Bains and Lewis Champion couldn’t close the gap, as London’s Jase Harrison and Zamoku Weluche hit two of their own in return. Although the first quarter ended with the Rockets at an eight-point deficit, two late baskets from Sam Toluwase and Reis Pinnock ensured that the team were firmly in the match.
Weluche continued to carry the Lions’ offense in the second quarter, posting six points early to challenge a balanced scoring effort from across the Rockets’ roster. Bradley Kaboza soon took up scoring duties for the Lions, but Coach Pearson’s commitment to sharing the ball and finding the best shot proved productive. With seven different players contributing to the Rockets’ first eight baskets of the quarter, the Lions were faced with a barrage of scoring that they simply couldn’t contend with. Headlined by deep bombs from Jaz and Lewis Champion, ended this run trailing by two, having cut the lead by six through the quarter. With stifling defense thanks to great focus on the perimeter and the interior omnipresence of Meshack, the Rockets held the Lions scoreless for the final two minutes, tying a bow on the half with an athletic block on Weluche’s three-point effort by Cartaino. With the Lions tallying just 14 points in a scrappy, defensive quarter, the Rockets’ offensive consistency proved the difference, pushing them to a 44-42 lead at the half.
After a Lions layup levelled the scores, the third period opened with a flurry of turnovers from both sides. With both offenses stalling, Cartaino took his cue and asserted control with two layups off of steals – one from the active hands of Sam Toluwase and one of his own making. With the Lions still struggling to keep the ball and Harrison, Kaboza and Brandon Tchouya each splitting pairs of free throws, the Rockets were free to carve out a lead, capitalising to the tune of a double-digit lead after a Jaz Bains three. Though Reading’s offense was far from its best, their collective ability to generate easy shots and convert at the line buoyed them through another ugly quarter in which London made just three field goals for a total of 12 points. Although the Rockets only made seven themselves, another late Jaz Bains three and solid production from the line saw them tally 21 points for the quarter, taking a 65-54 advantage into the fourth.
With six points in the opening minute, the Rockets cane out ready to seize the game in the fourth and showed great hustle on the offensive glass and in the open court to generate easy looks. The constant pressure of Cartaino’s drives to the basket, a consistent factor throughout the match, spurred the Rockets on to a 13-0 run that put them up by 24 midway through the quarter. A Harrison steal and score gave the Lions a much-needed basket, but his attempts to spark a run in London’s favour were quickly rejected by a pair of layups from AJ Basi and Live Kivuvu. A Lewis Champion three with four minutes remaining put an end to any thoughts of a comeback, pinning the lead back at an insurmountable 26. With the game settled, youngster Kivuvu was able to showcase his range as the center stepped out for a three before hitting a free throw to close out the scoring for the Rockets, who emerged 94-70 victors on the night.
This defensively stout performance from the Rockets is all the more impressive for the fact that Meshack Lufile was limited to under 20 minutes. The center has been a force in the paint this year, as his three blocks this game can attest, but the combined efforts of the team forced a remarkable 29 turnovers by the Lions. With so many broken plays came time and space in the full court, and Cartaino put on a great display of athletic attacks to capitalise for an efficient 33 points. Most impressive, though, were his 10 steals, as he disrupted passing lanes and wreaked havoc on the Lions’ guards. With an astonishing box score of 33p/9r/3a/2b/10s, Tyler put together an all-time Rockets performance which showcased all the talent that made him an essential signing this summer. Jaz Bains and Lewis Champion provided elite floor-spacing, connecting on 4/7 and 3/6 three-pointers respectively, and a balanced offensive showing from the rest of the roster paired well with their tenacious defense to secure a great win on the road.