By Jamie King
Reading Rockets 88 Loughborough Riders 83
Sunday evening saw another thriller for the Rockets at Rivermead as they faced off against the Loughborough Riders for the second time this year. After a tense affair between the two teams in the Lynch Trophy earlier in October which almost ended in disaster after the Rockets surrendered a big lead late in the game, barely escaping with the win, both teams were primed for another close match in the NBL D1. In a game of runs where both teams showed flashes of brilliance throughout, the Rockets prevailed once again over the Riders who battled well to keep it close right up to the final whistle.
The Rockets got off to a strong start, swinging the ball around the arc to get Jaz Bains open for three. Defensively, however, the Rockets struggled to keep the Riders out of the paint. Matched up with the Riders’ sharpshooting big man Harrison Gamble, Meshack Lufile was often dragged out of the paint and the Riders capitalized early with a series of tough layups. After Meshack and Jaz each connected from midrange, the Rockets began to turn up their energy on the offensive glass and earned a Reis Pinnock putback and a Tyler Cartaino long two-pointer for their efforts. With each team enjoying brief periods of control through the opening exchanges and the Rockets leading 13-12, a series of turnovers from both sides slowed the scoring down as each defense began to crank up the intensity. Ben Dixon stepped up for the Rockets to break the deadlock with two layups late in the quarter, kickstarting another brief scoring frenzy in which Lewis Champion hit two threes to close out the first period with the Rockets leading 26-22.
Meshack led the Rockets out in the second period with a strong drive across the lane earning him a converted and-one before a clever Reis Pinnock entry pass gave him another easy two points. With both teams scoring well in the first, Coach Pearson looked to switch up his defensive approach in the second quarter, utilizing a zone defense. This shored up the inside, but the Riders were able to punish the zone with a corner three early in the period. Tyler Cartaino headlined another rich scoring run for both sides with a smart assist to the cutting Ben Dixon followed by a tough finish of his own shortly after. Loughborough’s Harrison Gamble and Dwayne Orija each connected from deep to prevent the Rockets from pulling away as the scores mounted. With buckets coming thick and fast, the Rockets were first to put on a defensive stand and wrest back control of the game, forcing a 24 second violation through great team defense before Cartaino blocked a transition layup attempt. As halftime approached, Harrison Gamble – who had scored an outstanding 16 points in as many minutes up to this point – went down under the hoop with an ankle injury. After receiving treatment on the court, he unfortunately had to call time on what was quickly becoming an elite offensive showing for the big man, leaving the Riders without their key scoring threat. Justin Hedley kept their offense ticking over as the quarter came to a close but the half would end with the Rockets up by 11, as more great work on the offensive boards, this time by youngster Isaac Round, gave AJ Basi an open three to wrap up the half.
Leading 52-41 going into the third, the Rockets continued to assert themselves through the interior presence of Meshack Lufile. With two buckets inside, including a tough and-one, and a dominant block in the paint, Meshack commanded the floor as the second half began. Cartaino cleverly slipped a screen in the pick and roll to get open for a layup of his own and more activity from Reis Pinnock was rewarded as he jumped a passing lane to add to his tally of steals. Showing great energy on both ends, the Rockets began to extend their lead to 15 as Loughborough stalled without the threat of Gamble’s multi-level scoring. Victor Ndoukou soon took up the mantle for the Riders, though, energizing his team with tough defense to draw a charge off of Meshack before scoring off of a tough offensive rebound. Klodian Muca then drained a three after a strong defensive effort from the Riders before combining with Ndoukou for a layup after some pretty passing in the pick and roll. With the Rockets now in a dry spell of their own, Loughborough’s renewed efforts on both ends had quickly cut the deficit to four points. AJ Basi hit a much-needed three to end the Riders’ run, but Loughborough shooting guard Greg Wild immediately returned the favour. The Rockets, faced with the possibility of losing a significant lead going into the fourth period, responded well as Jaz Bains hit a clean stepback jumper from the baseline before Cartaino earned a trip to the line and hit two free throws. Reis Pinnock was then on hand to assist Meshack with some intelligent playmaking to end the quarter with the Rockets back in control and leading 71-62.
A tense fourth quarter began with both teams clearly feeling the pressure, as good playmaking was let down by missed shots at both ends. A Reis Pinnock layup kicked off the period’s scoring before he combined twice with Cartaino in transition, assisting each other with fantastic lead passes on back to back plays with another powerful Meshack block separating them. CJ Hayden connected from deep to give the Riders some momentum before AJ Basi hit a three of his own to maintain the Rockets’ lead. Unwilling to give up the fight, the Riders then put together a strong run with Hedley connecting on an and-one before Muca hit another three. After a Rockets turnover and fastbreak layup for the Riders, the lead was back down to six with all to play for as the game neared its conclusion. Sam Toluwase scored on the break to give the Rockets two points, but both offenses soon stalled as the pressure mounted. Both sides turned the ball over but neither could capitalise, with Meshack altering shots in the paint to keep the Riders at bay. Then, with one minute left, the game was blown wide open by back to back threes for the Rider’s Joe Bielak, leaving the game tied with 45 seconds remaining. With the game on the line, the Rockets got into the halfcourt and moved the ball well as they looked for an opportunity to snatch back the lead. The ball came out to Lewis Champion, who had been shooting well all night, and he put up a three from the wing which dropped through the hoop. With a three-pointer enough to tie the game back up, though, the Rockets had no time to relax as the Riders aimed for a triple of their own in the closing seconds. The Rockets put together a great defensive possession, with each player giving their all to force a contested three which rattled out for a Cartaino defensive rebound. He took the intentional foul, walked down the court and promptly swished two free throws to ice the game with the score at 88-83.
In one of the most thrilling games of the season so far, the Rockets flexed their clutch gene to put away a lively Loughborough Riders side who posed a real threat late in the game. With eight players scoring seven or more points, the Rockets got production from every position and shot an impressive 47% from the field collectively. Meshack contributed heavily to the team’s efficiency as he went 8/9 from the field and picked up five offensive rebounds to keep the team supplied with easy second-effort scoring opportunities. Reis Pinnock’s energy was brilliant throughout, pushing the pace when necessary but also showing a willingness to slow the game down and playmake in the halfcourt. Though no-one tallied outstanding assist numbers, great passing from Pinnock, Dixon and Cartaino – who had an impressive double-double with 15 points and 14 rebounds – kept the ball moving and produced easy looks for the team. Loughborough showed great tenacity and, had Harrison Gamble not gone down with an unfortunate injury, his scoring could have made this a much more difficult match in the closing stages – we wish him a speedy recovery as he gets treatment on his ankle. This will go down as a brilliant win for the Rockets and Coach Pearson will certainly be happy with what he saw on both ends this evening as the Rockets continue their great form in the league.