By Jamie King
Reading Rockets 82 – Worthing Thunder 92
The Rockets’ last game of the calendar year saw them play host to a dangerous Worthing Thunder side on Sunday evening. It was the only game played in the NBL D1 this weekend, with all other fixtures called off due to Covid outbreaks around the league, but that’s not to say it was unaffected. Worthing turned up to Rivermead with only six eligible players due to Covid, giving the Rockets a great opportunity to take down one of the top sides in the league. Despite the numerical advantage, an energetic performance by the Thunder saw them emerge unlikely victors on the night by 92-82 as the Rockets failed to capitalise on their greater depth on a disappointing evening for Coach Pearson’s men.
The Thunder came out firing, draining a trio of triples in the opening four minutes to open up a 13-4 lead early. An early Reis Pinnock dunk got the Rockets going, and they continued to score inside through Meshack Lufile and Ben Dixon to reduce the deficit to four points. At the midpoint of the quarter, things were looking fairly even; inside scores by Tyler Cartaino and Sam Toluwase were balanced out by Worthing’s Zaire Taylor, keeping the game close as the period wore on. Unfortunately, the Rockets were quickly left behind as the Thunder exploded for a 15-0 run late in the first, going scoreless for over four minutes. Five of Worthing’s six-man squad got on the scoreboard as a mix of twos and threes rained down on the Rockets, who couldn’t muster a response as their shots refused to fall and their turnovers climbed. Ben Dixon hit a much-needed mid-range shot to end the run at 31-14, but Worthing’s Kevin Moyo made two free throws to end the quarter to re-establish their 19-point lead at 33-14.
The second quarter opened with a slick underhand scoop pass from Reis Pinnock which split the defense and gave Lufile an easy bucket inside, showcasing the Rockets’ offensive capabilities which had been largely absent in the first period. Cartaino followed this up with a baseline jumper after breezing by a closeout and another midrange make, but his efforts were matched by Worthing’s Jarred Dixon who tallied five points of his own in the opening exchanges. The Rockets were at last showing signs of life on both ends, clinically converting a fastbreak before Lewis Champion poked the ball loose to deny Worthing the opportunity for one in response. A brief lull in scoring ended when Reis Pinnock got the line for a free throw at the five-minute mark, following it with a layup soon after. Dixon, who ended with an outstanding 31 points on the night, matched the Rockets again by scoring a layup of his own, maintain a 15-point cushion deep into the second. Meshack earned himself two scores off of offensive rebounds to match the four points contributed by Worthing’s Howard Crawford as a very even second period came to its conclusion, but two late fouls on Zaire Taylor allowed him to knock down four from the line late in the quarter, punctuated by a great inside score from Sam Toluwase after clever passing out of the post gave Ben Dixon the angle for a slick entry pass. The Rockets went into the break down 50-31, with a lot of ground to make up in the second half.
After struggling from three in the first half, Jaz Bains righted the ship after the break with a pair of triples early. But, just as at every other juncture during the match where the Rockets seemed to be gathering momentum, the Thunder upped their game to match. Lucien Christofis and Dixon combined for 15 points in the first four minutes, including three in a row from range to kick things off. Meshack and Sam T continued to provide inside, but Worthing’s firepower was proving hard to contain. Taylor’s tough shotmaking was on display halfway through the period, where his turnaround midrange shot extended the lead to a commanding 23 points. The third ended without much production from either team, and a Ben Dixon triple capped off the period’s scoring after a Pinnock layup was equaled by a pair of Worthing free throws. Another even quarter in which Reading failed to close the gap left them down 20 going to the fourth, with the scores at 69-49.
In most fixtures, a deficit this large would be insurmountable in just one quarter. But, given the depleted roster Worthing were working with, there was hope inside Rivermead that fatigue would favour the Rockets and allow a comeback. A 6-0 run for the Rockets to open the quarter, including two layups for Cartaino, gave cause for optimism but was quickly matched by an equal run for the Thunder. Cartaino, after a relatively quiet night, had found some rhythm and began attacking the hoop for easy scores. After earning and sinking a pair of free throws, a clever Ben Dixon trap on the inbound pass gave the Rockets another easy look inside, with Cartaino collecting the ball in the right dunker spot and flushing it with contact for an and-one. Jarred Dixon put an end to the run with a layup, but Cartaino continued to attack and put up another five points with a layup and triple after blocking a Taylor jumpshot at the other end. Meshack was next to score, ending Cartaino’s personal ten-point run and leaving the Rockets down by just ten. The scores came thick and fast as the game drew toward its end, with each of the Thunder’s five men on the floor pitching in buckets to hold off the Rockets’ late surge. Another Cartaino three was followed by three buckets for Meshack, closing the gap to just seven points with a minute to play. Ben Dixon connected from outside to shave the lead further, but the tenacious offense of Worthing did just enough to prevent a comeback before Zaire Taylor hit a dagger three with thirty seconds on the clock to extend the lead to an unassailable nine. Jaz Bains hit another three in the dying moments but it proved too little too late, and an impressive display of heart and endurance saw the Thunder escape as the winners by a score of 92-82.
Though a disappointing loss for the Rockets, credit must be given to the Thunder for showing incredible determination throughout. Their first-quarter explosion gave them a great platform and they played solid basketball throughout, making timely shots to deny the Rockets momentum and staying disciplined so as to not end up in foul trouble with so few men. Dixon scored a game-high 31 on 52% from the field while playing every second of the game, and his supporting cast all pitched in with big moments of their own. Zaire Taylor’s 23 points came with 6 assists and 4 steals in a balanced showing which also saw him cleverly get to the line for nine free throws, allowing him to generate offense while also giving himself and his teammates more opportunity for rest during the game. The Rockets rallied well behind Cartaino, who finished with 23 points, and Lufile, who had 25, but their late heroics were not enough after a poor first quarter. Their offense showed flickers of the intelligent passing and dynamic drives which propelled many of their victories this year, but they failed to establish any offensive consistency and turned the ball over 20 times to Worthing’s 9. It was a missed opportunity for the Rockets, who will know that they could – and likely should – have won this game, but here’s to hoping they come into the new year fresh and ready to win.